If it didn't follow Glitter, the gold standard for diva implosions in the early 21st century, Mariah Carey's Charmbracelet would simply be her worst album, but since it was rushed out in late 2002 in an effort to mask that disaster, to treat it as if it never happened, it achieves a special kind of grandeur -- it's a botched attempt to restore a career after a botched attempt at a crossover. Of course, the Carey party line, including her new label Island (who has sponsored her vanity imprint, MonarC), claims her lone Virgin album, Glitter, shouldn't be considered an official Mariah album since it was a soundtrack, but not only does that theory not hold water (perhaps Purple Rain shouldn't be considered a Prince album, then?), it signals that everybody realizes that Glitter wasn't just a disaster, but that her whole ghetto-fabulous trip of the late '90s eroded her core MOR audience. So, with Charmbracelet, the backpedalling is immediately evident, from the demure photos gracing the artwork (the tight shorts of Rainbow are long gone) and the first single/opening track "Through the Rain," a slow ballad designed as "Vision of Love" meets "Hero." Mariah is back in the adult contemporary camp, no longer trying to prove that she's real. She hasn't completely abandoned hip-hop, but whenever it rears its head on Charmbracelet, it's utterly jarring, whether it's Jay-Z's and Freeway's guest spots on "You Got Me," the club-ready groove of "You Had Your Chance" (built on the same bassline as "Nuthin' But a G Thang"), or the blatant rewrite of Cam'ron's "Oh Boy" on "Boy (I Need You)" (he may endorse it with a cameo, yet the sampled vocal hook remains singularly annoying no matter how it's presented), or the crackling vinyl used as ambient noise on "Irresistible," or the distracting use of dripping water as percussion on "I Only Wanted." Weirdly enough, even these detours are nothing more than flourishes -- window-dressing on songs that remain firmly in the middle of the road, since that's where the sales are, or at least where Mariah's aging fan base is. This, of course, is not a problem, since she's done hip-hop-influenced dance tunes and ballads very well before. What is a problem is that there are no good songs on this record outside of Def Leppard's power ballad classic "Bringin' on the Heartbreak," which isn't even covered all that well. What is a greater problem is that Mariah's voice is shot, sounding in tatters throughout the record. Whenever she sings, there's a raspy whistle behind her thin voice and she strains to make notes throughout the record. She cannot coo or softly croon, nor can she perform her trademark gravity-defying vocal runs. Her voice is damaged, and there's not a moment where it sounds strong or inviting. That alone would be disturbing, but since the songs are formless and the production bland -- another reason why the hip-hop announces itself, even though it's nowhere near as pronounced as it has been since Butterfly -- her tired voice becomes the only thing to concentrate on, and it's a sad, ugly thing, making an album that would merely have been her worst into something tragic.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine