VH1 recognized Mariah Carey for her many hip-hop collaborations at this year’s Hip Hop Honors, which aired Monday night, and the timing couldn’t have been better.
Twenty years ago this month, Carey released “Butterfly.” The album, which hit shelves Sept. 16, 1997, marked a pivotal moment in Carey’s career, not least because it followed her very public split from music exec Tommy Mottola. The title was symbolic — Carey was coming into her own. Her clothing style grew noticeably sexier. She was more playful with her fans, more frank in interviews. But most importantly, the album introduced Carey, largely considered a pop singer, as a veritable hip-hop collaborator.
“Butterfly” found Carey working with hip-hop heavyweights including Sean “Puffy” Combs (now known as Diddy), Q-Tip, Stevie J and Missy Elliott. She had dabbled in the genre on her previous album, “Daydream,” which featured multiple collaborations with So So Def founder Jermaine Dupri and R&B hitmaker Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Carey famously recruited Wu Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard for the remix to her 1995 single “Fantasy,” her first co-effort with Combs.
With guest verses from Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Mase, The Lox and Mobb Deep, “Butterfly” proved Carey was more than comfortable in the hip-hop space. Collaborating with rappers had been commonplace for R&B singers, including Faith Evans, Mary J. Blige and Total in the mid-90s, but it was relatively new terrain for pop stars. “Butterfly” — and Carey’s subsequent collaborations with rappers including Jay-Z, Nas, Cam’ron and Snoop Dogg — helped pave the way for other pop stars (looking at you Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry) to sing alongside their rap contemporaries.
At the Hip Hop Honors, DJ Khaled called her “the queen of the remix.” Dupri, her frequent collaborator, said in a tribute video that she was “the innovator of the sound that you basically hear now.” Damon Dash, who co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records with Jay-Z, said that “everybody that likes rap, likes Mariah.”
“I don’t even look at her like outside of our culture, she’s in it,” he added. “Mariah’s hip-hop.”
Carey later took the stage, where she performed a “Honey” medley, mashing up So So Def’s remix and the Combs-produced album version. Da Brat, Dupri, The Lox and Mase joined her at different points in the performance, as artists including Lil’ Kim, Monica and Kelly Rowland sang along in the crowd.
“Butterfly” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, with “Honey,” the album’s lead single, becoming Carey’s 12th song to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. “My All,” which spawned a remix featuring of-the-moment duo Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, also spent one week atop the list.
Despite generally favorable reviews, some critics were clearly skeptical of Carey’s supposedly new sound. In his review for The Washington Post, Richard Harrington declared “there are two Mariah Careys on ‘Butterfly.’”
“One is the pop-oriented, ballad-leaning traditionalist who works very effectively with her longtime professional partner, composer-producer Walter Afanasieff,” he wrote. “The other is a self-styled hip-hop fanatic.”
By all accounts, Carey was prepared for the backlash. “Doing ‘Fantasy’ with ODB in ’95 was not exactly a pop move,” she says in “Mariah #1s,” a collection of music videos that was released on DVD in 2000. “This was way before ‘Ghetto Supastar,’” she adds, citing the 1998 collaboration between Pras, singer Mya and ODB. “I was just a fan of Wu Tang, and I was a fan of his.”
Working with hardcore rap duo Mobb Deep in 1997 wasn’t exactly a pop move either. The group appeared on the remix for “Butterfly’s” third single “The Roof,” which sampled the group’s 1995 song “Shook Ones (Part II).”
If critics — or fans — took a cynical view of Carey’s affinity for hip-hop, they simply weren’t paying attention to her discography (see: “Fantasy,” “Long Ago”) or her background (a multiracial woman who spent formative years in New York City, the birthplace of hip-hop).
“I’ve done things in the past that I felt really good about that weren’t necessarily released, so now people are like, ‘oh, she’s jumping on the hip- hop bandwagon,’” the singer told Trace Magazine in 1998. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
The bandwagon perception also ignored the fact that working with Carey was a huge milestone for the rappers she collaborated with.
“I was still a young kid — I was really in awe of Mariah,” Jadakiss told Billboard of recording the “Honey” remix.
“When I heard it I was just really excited, ” his former Lox group mate Styles P, told the site. “For a rapper to be able to get on a song with Mariah Carey, for it to be the kind of beat you could actually enjoy rapping over, that makes for a great session. Makes your job easier.”
This year’s Hip Hop Honors ceremony focused on artists who made significant contributions to hip-hop culture in the 90s, and Carey — who has continued to write, produce and perform alongside rappers and well-respected hip-hop producers — certainly fits the bill. It’s refreshing to see her get recognized for an important but often overlooked aspect of her legacy.
VH1’s tribute video included a telling archival clip of her explaining that “everybody likes to put categories on music and people, this is black, this is white. And I just really don’t think there’s a need to categorize everything.”
This post has been updated.