The stage has been a daunting place for Mariah Carey over the years. She has appeared stiff or driven by whims, her ability to follow theatrical design seemingly nil. Far too often, her frivolousness got the best of her. That’s all changed with her tour for “The Emancipation of Mimi,” an attempt to merge glamour with a hip-hop party under an umbrella of congeniality. Her rich voice and apparent comfort in a stripped-down setting make the best parts of the “Mimi” show spectacular, but there’s still a struggle to present a tight, cohesive piece of entertainment.
The costume changes are limited to four; the stage set is a simple giant M and a stage-right staircase; and she uses the center-arena stage for a pair of songs that bring her closer to the fans whom she says, early and often, she adores. For once, she’s comfortable in her own skin, much of which was on display in two of her revealing outfits.
Unlike with so many arena acts, her voice sounded natural and consistently in tune.
The rare pop songbird who has a hand in writing her material, Carey has a natural affinity with the newer material, most of which has a depth that goes beyond her earlier hits.
Carey, a tabloid fave for a while for her public meltdowns, surprised the world by producing the biggest-selling album of 2005. Whether it was a conscious strategy or not, by waiting until this summer to tour she ensured the “Mimi” tracks would be as popular as anything in her lengthy list of top-10 hits.
The best of the “Mimi” material — “Shake It Off,” “We Belong Together” and “Fly Like a Bird,” performed with a local church choir — sparkled differently than the rest. The 36-year-old Carey gets to push her voice in ways she didn’t in her early days, when nearly every song was structured to take advantage of her remarkable — and occasionally ear-splitting — range.
She still gets to flash, but now there’s a little staccato delivery or a tough-girl stance or a harder beat to play off; the “Mimi” show has a significant range across the pop spectrum.
Rap sections of songs are played straight from the records — that’s Jay-Z doing his bit on “Heartbreaker,” for example — and, naturally, she doesn’t give much attention to her pre-recorded partner. That’s a shame. Carey actually makes for quite a sincere duet partner, as she showed on “I’ll Be There” with backup singer Trey Lorenz. As well as she performs “Heartbreaker,” it might be interesting to hear it with someone handling Jay-Z’s rap or, God forbid, done straight with nothing but singing.
But in the nearly two hours between the opening of the curtains and the rise of the house lights, there’s not quite enough Mariah. And the acts plugging the holes while she’s offstage — Lorenz does a solo with a marginal tune, a DJ and an MC play snippets of hip-hop hits and request a lot of screaming — pander too much to the audience.
Considering how inventive Carey has asked her choreographer, dancers and video technicians to be, one would like to think she could extend that to her turntablist. When Carey is onstage, she has a lot going on with video and movement, and it all it perfectly complements the performances.
While it’s hard to generalize in an arena as large as Staples Center, sound was particularly good at this show. Most of the music comes from Carey’s two synthesizer players, but vocals were clear and well balanced.