Party Like It’s 1999: Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” (feat. JAY-Z)

In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.

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Mariah Carey- “Heartbreaker” (feat. JAY-Z)

HIT #1: October 9, 1999

STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks

Mariah Carey was done with Columbia Records. For the entire ‘90s, Carey’s career on Columbia which through the careful control of its head and Carey’s one-time husband Tommy Mattola helped turn her into the most dominant chart-topping act of the ‘90s, the closest thing to the Beatles that decade had in terms of pure Billboard chart dominance. But along the way, Carey and Mattola divorced and Carey began to incorporate more hip-hop and R&B sounds into her music alongside the middle of the road pop ballads she originally made her name on. 

When Carey made her seventh album, 1999’s Rainbow, it was her last album under contract for Columbia and she was quick to make the album in order to get out of her increasingly strained relationship with the label. Despite the turmoil, Rainbow continued Mariah Carey’s massive success and it led off with a formula that helped her last two albums: an R&B track built on an ‘80s sample with vocals and/or production help from a rapper. It also happens to be a weak forgettable shrug of a song.

Of all her albums up to that point, Rainbow took the quickest to record in only three months with Carey recording her vocals on the Italian island of Capri. The initial writing for “Heartbreaker” came from Carey who also produced the track with new producer DJ Clue who came together through friends. Trying to come up with a track, Clue presented Carey with a sample of “Attack of the Name Game” by child R&B singer Stacy Lattisaw and immediately liked the sample forming “Heartbreaker.” 

A Washington D.C. native, Stacy Lattisaw signed to a record deal at age 12 and spent the ‘80s as a child and teenage R&B singer before retiring from music in the ‘90s. Lattisaw netted several big hits on the R&B charts but didn’t have a whole lot of pop crossover. (Lattisaw’s highest-charting single, 1980’s “Let Me Be Your Angel,” peaked at #21.) She did have a close encounter with a #1 hit as she was originally in mind for 1979’s “Ring My Bell” before it became a disco hit for Anita Ward. “Attack of the Name Game” is a 1982 adaptation of Shirley Ellis’ 1965 R&B novelty hit “The Name Game.” (“The Name Game” peaked at #3. It’s a 4.) The song peaked at #70 on the Hot 100 and #14 on the R&B charts. 

On its own, “Attack of the Name Game” is a pretty annoying piece of early ‘80s R&B complete with amateur rapping from Lattisaw back when rap music was still a largely underground genre. There’s also this weird alien effect on her voice that turns off any enjoyment. But it’s not hard to see why Carey and Clue would take a liking to its beat, a lighthearted R&B dance-pop groove that features bass playing from Randy Jackson, the future American Idol judge. It’s the kind of beat that you’d expect to be sampled for a late ‘90s R&B/hip-hop collaboration. (“Attack of the Name Game” writers Narada Michael Walden and Jeffrey Cohen are credited on “Heartbreaker” along with the writers of “The Name Game” Shirley Ellis and Lincoln Chase.)

For the song’s rap feature, Carey chose a little rising New York rapper named JAY-Z who she met one night at a New York restaurant. Carey was a fan of him and wound up talking a lot which led to the two of them collaborating on “Heartbreaker.” By 1999, JAY-Z, born Shawn Carter, had come a long way from his rough beginnings growing up in the Marcy housing projects in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with a single mom. (The #1 song the week of JAY-Z’s birth: Steam’s “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”) JAY-Z began taking up rapping as a teenager and doing everything to make his way in the rap business. JAY-Z and some friends created their own record label Roc-a-Fella Records (Get it: Roc-a-Fella as in Rockefeller) in 1996 with his debut album Reasonable Doubt being released soon after. 

The album wasn’t a major hit but it did get him noticed in the New York rap scene among collaborating with established favorites. His next two albums began to push him further into the mainstream especially the third, Vol.2: Hard Knock Life, and its Annie sampling title track which peaked at #18. So it made sense that Carey would have him guest on her song. While it may be good that JAY-Z got his first #1 hit out of it, it’s not any different than Nicki Minaj’s recent attempts at #1 hits in how unremarkable it is relying on forgettable guest verses. He does a rap bridge that like most guest rap verses doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the song, “She want to shop with Jay, play box with Jay/She want to pillow fight in the middle of the night.” Carey herself said this about JAY-Z which says a lot, “When he came in and he did his thing it was like, wow. He wrote nothing down, he did off the top of his head.” He’s clearly just phoning it in for a paycheck. 

Even knowing the behind the scenes drama between Carey and her label, it doesn’t come across in “Heartbreaker.” It sounds like the music equivalent of cruising carefree in the summer sun with your hair blowing in the wind. The Lattisaw sample brings a bouncy fun vibe that immediately makes it better than the original song and Carey sings “Heartbreaker” in a small cooing delivery as opposed to the show-stopping vocals she’s known for. Trey Lorenz, Carey’s friend who sang on her 1992 live #1 cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” sings backing vocals. The song was initially planned to be included on the soundtrack to her debut film Glitter but was included on Rainbow after the film got delayed. Considering how bad the movie and soundtrack flopped, that might have been a good thing. 

The lyrics are anything but carefree. They’re a pretty serious case of toxic co-dependence. Carey is in love with a guy who she knows is cheating on her but continues falling for him. She sounds totally addicted to this guy despite knowing she probably shouldn’t, “Boy your love’s so good/I don’t want to let go/And although I should/I can’t leave you alone.” She talked about this to Fred Bronson in Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, “It was from the standpoint of girls who keep going back to the same guy and they can’t help themselves. They know they’re going to get hurt. I’ve been one of those girls, so I know there’s a lot of them out there.” Just looking at the lyrics, this doesn’t sound like a healthy situation.

That’s not how it sounds though. Carey doesn’t convey that this relationship she’s in is bad and that she should get out of it. She delivers the song in a fun and playful style making you forget about the unhealthy nature of the lyrics. In my time of listening to “Heartbreaker,” the song’s breezy tone makes what Carey’s singing about go over my head a lot. There’s a disconnect between the lyrics and delivery. Carey doesn’t sound concerned at all about this guy cheating on her or that she should move on from him. In terms of #1 hits, the song it reminds me the most of is the Bee Gees’ 1979 #1 “Love You Inside Out” in how it’s a minor piece of music from an act in their imperial phase with serious relationship problem lyrics over sunny production that makes you think otherwise.

But at least “Love You Inside Out” has the laidback funky beat, Barry Gibb’s unmistakable falsetto, and a fundamental catchiness to drive the song into your head. “Heartbreaker” doesn’t have those benefits. As a piece of music, it’s not bad but doesn’t do much to stand out and make an impression outside of indifference. The same goes with Carey’s vocals. The biggest appeal of Mariah Carey and her music has always been her voice and she has shown to be capable of singing fun R&B inflected dance-pop as she did greatly on 1995’s #1 “Fantasy.” Carey still does her trademarks like the effortless whistle and melisma runs but it doesn’t hit as hard as her other songs do. It sounds like it was made on an off-day. Of Mariah’s 19 #1 hits, “Heartbreaker” is the one that feels the most ignorable.

In the frankly ridiculous high budget music video for “Heartbreaker,” directed by the now-disgraced Brett Ratner, we see Carey’s friends dragging her to a movie theater to catch her boyfriend cheating on her. They go in despite Carey’s objections where she gets into a dance routine in front of the concession stand before going into the theater. In the theater, we see Carey’s boyfriend, played by Jerry O’Connell, with a brunette doppelgänger named Bianca. Her friends throw popcorn leaving Bianca to go to the bathroom where Carey follows her trying to apologize before getting into a pseudo action movie fight. Toward the end, Carey goes to O’Connell pouring a cup of soda on his pants exposing him for cheating. 

JAY-Z was originally planned to be in the video and had taped his part but had to drop out due to a contractual agreement so Carey and her team at the last minute created various animated slides to play during his verse. The video with JAY-Z would get released eventually showing him rapping in a fancy bathtub. 

The one thing I don’t get watching the video is how everyone in the movie theater seems to be unfazed by all the action going on seeing a group of women walk into a theater during a movie with Carey singing and the popcorn fight. If I was there I’d sure be wanting them to quiet down or get the fuck out and stop disrupting the movie. Considering I was a few months old when the song was popular, I’d be crying a lot if this was happening. 

For what it’s worth, the “Heartbreaker” video is a reflection of the massive star power Mariah Carey had at the time. The video is considered one of the most expensive music videos ever made at $2.5 million. Only a star like Mariah Carey could afford to make a ridiculous spectacle as this.

“Heartbreaker” may not be talked about much today but it continued Mariah Carey’s ridiculous chart success and furthered JAY-Z’s rise into the billionaire rapper and media mogul we know him as now. The Rainbow album netted Carey her 15th #1, “Thank God I Found You,” a collaboration between the boy band 98 Degrees and the R&B singer Joe. (It’s a 5.) Soon after, she would go into an early 2000s slump following the failure of Glitter, come back with the biggest hit of 2005 and the 2000s, and hit #1 at the very end of the 2010s with her Christmas song from 1994. We’ll get to that. 

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Darren Criss performing “Heartbreaker” on a 2019 episode of Lip Sync Battle:

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