Road To The Grammys: The Story Behind Mariah Carey’s ‘We Belong Together’

Sessions that produced 'We Belong Together' — Mariah's 16th #1 single — almost didn't happen.

Mariah needed a miracle.

In November 2004 she was still mired in a deep slump that was on the verge of killing her career (“Glitter,” anyone?). But she had a full album’s worth of hot new material in the can that she was sure would rocket her back to multiplatinum status.

However, Mariah’s label boss, L.A. Reid, thought she needed a little insurance, and suggested she try just one more session to sprinkle some final fairy dust on her emancipation proclamation, The Emancipation of Mimi.

“L.A. was like, ’You and Jermaine Dupri make magic together, why aren’t you in the studio with him?’ ” Carey recalled. “I said, ’I love Jermaine, is he free? I know he’s doing a million things, Usher and this and that.’ But Jermaine said, ’Come on down.’ ”

Dupri, of course, is one of the biggest hitmakers of the past 20 years, having crafted hits for Usher, TLC, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Nelly, Aaliyah, Kris Kross and many others in addition to Mariah. When she arrived at Dupri’s studio in Atlanta the next day, the two of them worked nonstop, popping off two songs in two days: “Get Your Number” and “Shake It Off.”

Up to that point, Carey and Reid had planned to make “Say Somethin’,” a collaboration with Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams, her new album’s first single. But once Reid heard the Dupri-helmed songs, Carey recalled, “He was like, ’Oh no! Now we’ve got to change the single, make these singles one and two.’ ”

Carey agreed. “Nobody could tell me that ’Shake It Off’ wasn’t going to be my first single. It was my favorite song, just from the demo.”

Dupri had quickly sized up what he felt the album needed. “The records that I made are very melodic records, regardless of their hip-hop influence,” Dupri said. “I think that’s what she was missing.”

And since he and Mariah had come up with those two songs in two days, why stop? “Then it was like, ’You want to go back down to Atlanta again?’ ” she said. So the pair teamed up again, coming up with “It’s Like That” and “We Belong Together” — the first two songs in the album’s final sequence — in two days.

“We said, OK, we love ’Shake It Off,’ ” Carey recalled. “We don’t know how we’re going to top that, but let’s just try.’ It turned out that ’It’s Like That’ was the right fire-starter, and ’We Belong Together’ was the bigger record.”

“We Belong Together” — which is nominated for Grammys in both the Record of the Year and Song of the Year categories — became Carey’s sweet 16: her 16th #1 hit, the most ever by a female artist. (Mariah has since broken her own record with “Don’t Forget About Us.”)

(Click here for the complete 2006 Grammy nominees list.)

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Dupri may deserve as much credit for what he got Mariah not to do. For someone so associated with multi-octave vocal gymnastics (look up “melisma” in the dictionary and you’ll see a picture of Mariah), Carey is a model of restraint on “We Belong Together”: She doesn’t even raise her voice until the song is near its end. She sings the chorus as if she actually were resigned to not having what she wants, and that understated approach makes the song far more powerful than it would have been if she’d belted it.

“People have to learn the art of subtlety,” she said. “We realized that once we did it, it was an inspiration in terms of how I was singing it. It was obvious that if it was touching us, it was going reach other people too.”

Carey also reversed her usual technique of singing as many notes per syllable as she possibly can, and her comparatively spare, hip-hop-inspired delivery is what pushes the song forward (the instrumental backing is primarily a beat and just a few simple piano chords).

“We just went back and forth with concepts for the beat and melodic ideas, which I didn’t expect from Jermaine, because usually I’m the one that dictates the entire melody,” Carey said. “But he had some really great ideas.”

The rest of the song is classic heartbreak. For the second verse, Mariah said she and Jermaine “had a pow-wow,” trying to figure out what it makes certain songs so special, how they “just hit you, and you’re like, ’Oh, man!’ You know?”

They came up with Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and Babyface’s “Two Occasions,” which Carey quotes in “We Belong Together” as she flips across a radio dial: “I gotta change the station/ So I turn the dial, tryin’ to catch a break/ And then I hear Babyface/ I only think of you and it’s breaking my heart/ I’m trying to keep it together but I’m falling apart.”

Record of the Year
Kanye West – “Gold Digger”
Green Day – “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”
Gwen Stefani – “Hollaback Girl”
Gorillaz – “Feel Good Inc.”

Carey reverses the melancholy at the end with vocal lifts that imply she’s bound to get her heart’s desire anyway, through sheer determination.

Kind of like the way she’s revived her career.

“It’s like, damn, two years ago she was the craziest person in the funny farm, and that don’t even exist no more,” Dupri said. “And she never got nominated this many times when she was the Mariah of old. It felt like the rebirth of the person you know as Mariah Carey.”

“I am so grateful I went to Atlanta,” Carey said. “And I have to say, we wrote some of my favorite songs on the album. I’m so proud of Jermaine — he’s so focused, and he knew what had to be done.

“You can never write off talent,” she added. Especially not her own.

For a full-length feature on Mariah Carey, check out Mariah Carey: Free At Last?”.

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