So I, Turn the Dial: Reflecting Upon Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”

Throughout her extensive career as a singer-songwriter, Mariah Carey has meticulously crafted one of the most incredibly diverse discographies in music history. Her catalog of fifteen studio albums consists heavily of R&B, pop, and hip-hop music, but also includes songs in genres such as gospel, funk, jazz, traditional soul, and even opera. Her songs cover the entire range of human emotion: the excitement of joy and love, the pain of sorrow and grief, the fulfillment of spiritual inspiration, and everything in between. Even more impressive, with the exception of an occasional cover, she’s written nearly all of those songs—something for which she does not get nearly enough credit or praise. The personal touch that Carey puts on her songs, coupled with her stellar five-octave vocal range, has not only built her a strong and loyal fan base (the Lambily), but has also established her as a household name worldwide. She has earned the respect of the legends who inspired her, the artists who are her contemporaries, and the ones who she inspired alike, and has collaborated with artists from each of those classes.

Carey’s adoration for music both past and present has guided her music-making process; she is able to draw from established music traditions while still maintaining appeal to modern audiences. The most notable example of this ability came in the spring of 2005. Fresh off of two commercially under-appreciated albums and five years removed from her last number-one song (“Thank God I Found You,” featuring Joe and 98 Degrees), Carey was in the hunt for a big hit that would reassert her status within the industry. That song came in the form of “We Belong Together,” her smash hit that took the world by storm and catapulted her back to her rightful spot at the top of the charts. The blend of traditional soul and modern hip-hop elements that Mariah Carey uses throughout the music, structure, and lyrics of “We Belong Together” serves not only as an explanation for the unprecedented success of the song, but also as a window into the shifts in popular Black music that occurred during the early-to-mid 2000s.

Mariah Carey performing at the 2009 Inaugural Ball of President Barack Obama. (Wikipedia)

One factor that contributed heavily to the massive success of “We Belong Together” was Mariah Carey’s vast understanding of and experience with a broad range of genres. Growing up, Carey was inspired heavily by artists like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, who took soul and R&B music to new levels and made her want to do the same. Her own solo career began in 1990 with the release of her self-titled debut album, which included standard R&B songs like “Vision of Love” and “Love Takes Time,” as well as “Alone in Love” and “Vanishing,” which fit into the R&B sub-genres of quiet storm and traditional soul, respectively.

She continued doing R&B on her sophomore album Emotions with singles like “Emotions,” “Can’t Let Go,” and “Make It Happen,” as well as deeper cuts like “If It’s Over,” “To Be Around You,” and “You’re So Cold.” However, at the direction of her record label, Carey took a more pop-driven route for her next 3 projects: the Diamond-certified albums Music Box (1993) and Daydream (1995), as well as the soon-to-be-Diamond holiday-themed Merry Christmas album (1994). She continued to make R&B songs in addition to the pop singles that her label desired, and while some like “Anytime You Need a Friend” and “Melt Away” made it onto the albums, others like “Do You Think of Me,” “All I Live For,” and “Slipping Away” did not make the label’s final cut. In fact, much of Carey’s most genre-explorative work up to that point had not been released. Songs like “Here We Go Around Again,” a Motown-infused song reminiscent of the signature Jackson 5 sound, and “Can You Hear Me,” a vocal-driven ballad, were not released in any capacity for years, not even as a B-side or bonus track (they have since been released on her 2020 album The Rarities). In fact, Carey recently revealed on Twitter that she wrote and recorded background vocals for an entire album of alternative rock music, at the same time that she was making the Daydream album (which, ironically, was snubbed for Album of the Year at the 1996 Grammys in favor of an alt-rock album: Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morrisette) [Chan]. After the release of Daydream, however, she began to pivot back to R&B.

By 1996, the genre of R&B had expanded from its soul roots into more of a hip-hop direction, a shift that Carey honored by teaming up with rising hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri to remix several of the singles from Daydream: “Fantasy” (the remix of which featured rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard and became one of the most influential collaborations in music history) and “Always Be My Baby” (the remix of which featured rapper Da Brat and R&B group Xscape). The success of each of these remixes impressed Carey’s label, leading them to give her more artistic freedom in the coming years (The Meaning of Mariah Carey, 169–70). On her next two albums, Butterfly and Rainbow, she leaned fully into the R&B and hip-hop sounds she’d always wanted to create, and she was able to place these sounds front and center on her albums. Singles from Butterfly like “Honey,” “My All,” and “Breakdown” (featuring rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony) cemented her as an R&B artist in the eyes of the public, specifically with Black audiences. During this stretch of her career, she also honed one of the musical formulas that she would use heavily in the coming years, including as the basis for “We Belong Together.”

The formula used by Carey was one that had been employed by many hip-hop artists throughout the late 80s and the 90s: sample a classic soul song for the beat, add in some rap verses, and recruit an R&B singer for the chorus. One example of this formula the Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance/Stay With Me” remix, featuring Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige and built around a sample of “Stay With Me” by the legendary R&B group DeBarge. Carey put her own unique twist on this formula through songs like the Stay Awhile Remix of “My All” (produced by Jermaine Dupri, featuring Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz, and using a sample and interpolation of “Stay A Little While, Child” by Loose Ends) and the Make It Last Remix of “Thank God I Found You” (featuring Joe and Nas and built around a sample/interpolation of “Make It Last Forever” by Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee). These songs were part of the combined R&B/hip-hop wave that would captivate young audiences like never before, but they also appealed to “a crossover audience” of older generations that were already familiar with the songs that Carey had sampled (The Meaning, 171). Carey’s creative freedom continued to increase as she entered the second decade of her career, and as audiences became more acclimated to her new sound, the pieces were falling into place for her biggest hit yet.

Mariah Carey posing during the cover art photoshoot for the “We Belong Together” single. (4K Wallpapers)

There are several key elements in the structure of “We Belong Together” that contributed heavily to its widespread appeal. The song begins with a lead-in and then four measures of a simple piano run—up and back down the keys. This piano intro is similar to that of Carey’s iconic Christmas classic “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” a similarity that listeners may not consciously notice but which adds to the subconscious familiarity and Mariah-ness of “We Belong Together.” About halfway through the run, she takes a breath and follows the piano down its scale with her voice. She finishes her run about a half-second after the piano, at which point several other instruments enter: a guitar, a drum machine, and the piano once again.

The tempo of “We Belong Together” isn’t particularly slow, but it’s not fast either; it’s a nice, steady beat that can fit a variety of moods. Carey begins to vocalize over the track, and right before her first verse begins, she sings “sweet love,” a callback (whether intentional or not) to Anita Baker’s classic 1986 R&B hit “Sweet Love” — the first of several musical references in the song. As Carey segues into her first verse, she recites her lyrics in a sort of half-sung, half-rapped way — “I didn’t mean it when I said I didn’t love you so / I should’ve held on tight, I never should’ve let you go” — before leaning more into a rap-type flow: “I didn’t know nothin’ / I was stupid, I was foolish / I was lyin’ to myself”. She repeats that one-two punch for the following lines, before transitioning into a pre-chorus bridge with a similar flow.

This first verse highlights the blend of genres that Carey infused into the various components of “We Belong Together”: from the R&B instrumental track and hip-hop drumline, to the half-sung, half-rapped vocals, to lyrics that discuss the central topic of most soul songs: love, and the pain that often accompanies it. All of these components carry on into the chorus, where she sings “When you left I lost a part of me / it’s still so hard to believe / come back baby, please, cause / we belong together.” As she sings, she is backed up by vocals of herself singing some of the key lyrics of the chorus (“we belong together …. togetherrrr … come back, come back … come back, come back… we belong together”) followed by a sequence of simple ooh’s. These background vocals are reminiscent of great soul groups such as The Supremes and The Marvelettes, and in a somewhat uncharacteristic move for Carey, she doesn’t take it all the way up there in the chorus — yet. She keeps a relaxed and relatively low tone, one that can easily be replicated by a listener attempting to sing along.

The second verse plays out differently from the first, as Carey leans more heavily into both the soul and hip-hop influences of the song. She kicks off this second verse by singing “I can’t sleep at night / when you are on my mind,” and then referencing a popular soul song: “Bobby Womack’s on the radio, sayin’ to me / ‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’ …”. She interpolates Womack’s song by singing the titular lyrics in the same way that he did, a small detail that will surely catch the ear of any listener familiar with his catalog of soul classics. She continues to narrate her exchange with the radio, halting the Womack moment with “wait a minute, this is too deep (too deep) / I gotta change the station as the instrumental drops out and then returns. As she “turn[s] the dial, tryna catch a break, the next artist she hears is Babyface, singing The Delle’s signature hit “Two Occasions”: “I only think of you…” (these interpolations play an even bigger role on the remix to “We Belong Together”).

Now having satisfied the soul music fans in her audience, she flips back into her rap flow once again:

I’m feelin’ all out of my element

I’m throwin’ things, cryin’, tryna / figure out where the hell I went

wrong, the pain reflected in this song ain’t even half of what I’m feelin’ inside

I need you, need you back in my life / bayyy-byyyy

Now having catered to the newer generation of hip-hop fans as well, she only has one part of the song left to fulfill: a signature Mariah Carey climax. She starts off the second rendition of the chorus by singing it the exact same way she did the first time around. However, as she reaches the final lines of the chorus, she quickly ascends the scales to reach that high level of her voice that the world had come to know and love, and repeats the chorus with every ounce of passion in her being. “WHEN! YOU! LEFT! I! LOST! A! PART! OF! ME! *IT’S STILL* SO HARD TO BELIEVE! she belts at the top of her lungs, putting all of the pain reflected in the song on full display. Finally, she punctuates the song with one final, drawn-out high note on “togethaaaa that fades out along with the instruments and background vocals.

Given the meticulous manner in which she’s known to craft her music, fans were surprised many years later when she revealed that she had rushedly improvised the climax of the song. As she recounted in a 2016 interview with Andy Cohen, she was under pressure to complete the song before record executive L.A. Reid arrived at her studio, so she came up with the iconic closing chorus of the song in one quick take (“Mariah on WWHL”). When they played it back, they knew that Mariah Carey had created something special — a testament to her ability to infuse passion and, well, soul into her music spontaneously, which is a hallmark of the R&B genre.

Mariah Carey performing a special rendition of “We Belong Together” for Valentine’s Day weekend in February 2021. (Rolling Stone)

Both in terms of Mariah Carey’s career as well as the greater context of the music industry, the legacy of “We Belong Together” cannot be overstated. It shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and spent fourteen weeks at the peak, the second-longest reign in history at the time (behind only “One Sweet Day” by Boyz II Men and … yup, Mariah Carey). It received the most impressions of any song in US radio history at the time (Mariah Daily), and also topped a record-setting nine Billboard charts all at once, including R&B, hip-hop, pop, dance, and rhythmic charts (Billboard). The song was the most successful hit of both 2005 as well as the entire 2000s decade (her second consecutive “Song of the Decade”) [Gabbara], and it won her two Grammys and a slew of other awards (Artist).

In addition to the accolades and chart achievements that the song garnered for Carey, it also had a profound cultural impact. People of all ages and all stages of life and love could connect with the song’s universal message of longing for a love gone too soon — from elders mourning a deceased life partner, to young adults lamenting over a failed relationship, to middle schoolers frustrated about an unrequited crush. The song’s ubiquity on the radio re-established Mariah Carey as a force with older audiences, and the constant rotation of its accompanying music video on MTV, BET, and other avenues helped to introduce her to younger audiences. By blending the soul influences that drew her into music in the first place, the hip-hop sounds that kept her music fresh over time, and her own unique Mariah spin to create “We Belong Together,” Mariah Carey crafted a three-minute-and-fifty-two-second masterpiece that continues to captivate listeners both young and old to this very day.

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Hey! I’m Black, Queer, Proud, a Lamb, a Hottie, part of the Beyhive, the Beehive, and Rena’s Army, a Veeliever, an RHOA stan, and I love writing about it all!

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