Float On: Mariah Carey’s ‘Butterfly’ Turns 25

For her sixth LP, Carey shed expectations and made her truest masterpiece

On September 16, 2022
Photo by Naomi Kaltman

To make Butterfly, Mariah Carey had to dismiss what fans previously expected from her. It meant shedding traditional pop ballads for urban adult contemporary and a harder hip-hop edge. Trading her dark-hued ringlets for a glamorous blonde blowout. Wearing thigh-baring gowns instead of conventional high-waisted jeans. Filing for divorce from music executive Tommy Mottola. By 1997, Mariah had broken all the rules to revamp her career on her sixth album, flying her into genre-defying heights.

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Let’s go back to where it all started: Mariah was ready for change as her first marriage was meeting its end. Twenty years Mariah’s senior, Mottola became the singer-songwriter’s eyes and ears to the music industry shortly after a then-18-year-old Mariah slipped Mottola her demo at a party in the late-’80s. Although Mariah felt indebted to Mottola giving her a career start, their marriage soured as the chanteuse felt overpowered. When reflecting on their wedding in 2019 to Cosmopolitan, Mariah opened up about the experience being “very controlled.”

“There was no ­freedom for me as a human being. It was almost like being a prisoner,” she said.

Under Motolla’s tutelage, Mariah became acquainted with producers and songwriters that assisted in crafting her early ’90s pop-oriented sound. Mariah’s previous material was soulful and her signature falsetto levitated over mainstream dance tunes, but in 1997, the vocalist hit a wall in her musical journey — one that directed her to leave Mottola’s underpinnings. 

In her 2020 autobiography The Meaning of Mariah, Carey detailed how Mottola and her former label Columbia Records detested her transition into urban soundscapes: “Again I heard the refrain ‘too urban,’ which of course was code for ‘too Black’ — and yeah, I wasn’t ever going back.” 

Taking to glorified New York recording studios The Hit Factory, Mariah fine-tuned her songwriting with tough production from hitmakers Puff Daddy, Q-Tip, Cory Rooney and The Trackmasters. Mariah’s longtime collaborator David Morales was on-hand for ballads, but Mariah transitioned into a hip-hop sensibility that recalled her “Fantasy” remix alongside Wu-Tang Clan’s uncompromising weirdo Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

In fact, Butterfly opening “Honey” was Mariah’s first return to a hip-hop influence since “Fantasy.” Built around the glossy piano riff and chorus of “Hey DJ” by New York City duo The World’s Famous Supreme Team, and belchy production from “The Body Rock” by Harlem rap group Treacherous Three, Mariah’s dulcet vocals were pure gold. The bronze-hued music video for “Honey” was just as sumptuous, as Mariah channeled her inner Bond girl backed by the original Bad Boy Records camp in Puerto Rico. While the single was undeniably pop-influenced, its tongue-in-cheek innuendos, carefree vibe and warm production positioned Butterfly as Mariah’s first hip-hop-inflected LP.

The album’s titular ballad returns to Mariah’s signature gospel-rooted essence — complete with support from a choir, no less — seemingly alluding to her separation from Mottola. “My All” follows, led by a heartfelt Latin guitar solo interwoven with Mariah’s velvety serenading. The black and white visual is just as poignant — and could arguably double as a backdrop for a ’90s romance novel — as Mariah embraces an equally blond lover under moonlight.

Emulating ’70s Perfect Angel-era Minnie Riperton, “Fourth of July” sweeps with glittering instrumentation and mellow pacing. Despite Mariah’s 1997 separation from Motolla, the mood of Butterfly is relatively amorous, meditating on fruitful passion in lieu of past relationship trauma. 

Mariah also gave room for underground rap outfits of the ’90s to have their mainstream debut. New York duo Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II) was heavily sampled on “The Roof” while Krayzie Bone and Wish Bone of Cleveland group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony traded syncopation with Mariah on “Breakdown.” Despite only two members of the group being featured on “Breakdown,” Bone Thugs-N-Harmony joined Mariah for the ritzy music video, where Mariah mournfully performs in various “casino girl” roles. Even Redman makes an appearance as a magician, playing tricks on Mariah while she floats in mid-air.

Following the release of Aaliyah’s coming-of-age sophomore album One In A Million, singer-songwriter, rapper and producer Missy Elliott became a hot commodity, in-demand by Mariah for “Babydoll.” Months after the release of her debut album Supa Dupa Fly, Elliott’s first collaboration with the songbird was enchanted, with Mariah belting out her fairy-tale wishes over piano-coated, backspin production.

Mariah cradles her childhood essence on “Whenever You Call” and “Close My Eyes,” giving listeners a peek at her melancholic journey on the latter: “I was a wayward child / With the weight of the world that I held deep inside / Life was a winding road / And I learned many things little ones shouldn’t know.”

Ambient and house-oriented, “Fly Away (Butterfly Reprise)” sees Mariah accepting her newfound freedom beneath an interpolation of Elton John’s 1975 single “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” With Baltimore-bred R&B quintet Dru Hill in tow, Mariah gives Prince his flowers on a slowed-down cover of his 1984 Purple Rain hit “The Beautiful Ones,” her vocals delicately cascading against the atmospheric synths. Looking afar on “Outside,” Mariah remains self-assured, anticipating her next chapter while giving reverence to a higher being. 

   Photo by Naomi Kaltman 

Both vulnerable and determined, Butterfly marked Mariah’s transitional period, influencing her female pop and R&B successors including Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande and Joyce Wrice. Deeply personal, the album nurtured Mariah’s healing process while giving her permission to dismiss public expectations. During an age of metamorphosis, the “Songbird Supreme” found her voice, making her truest masterpiece to date.


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Jaelani Turner-Williams

Jaelani Turner-Williams is a culture writer from Columbus, Ohio. With a focus on music criticism, literature, visual art and social issues, Jaelani has written for Billboard, MTV News, Remezcla and others. Vince Staples once told her she was mean.

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