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‘The Celebration of Mimi’: Inside Mariah Carey’s Career-Spanning Las Vegas Comeback

Earlier this year, Mariah Carey sent her creative team to search for one significant piece of tour memorabilia. It had been nearly two decades since she last saw it: the glowing “MIMI” sign that lit up the stage during her Adventures of Mimi tour in 2006. Each night, the lighting structure would descend from above the stage as Carey — shimmering in a black, menswear-inspired co-ord — launched into “Shake It Off,” one of the most successful singles from The Emancipation of Mimi, released on April 12, 2005. The sign was a reference to both the album title and the artist, who earned the nickname “Mimi” from her closest friends and family. It also captured the radiance that the record brought out of Carey. 

“There’s just something about that time period and about everything that went into my work, my music, and my life at that time that really is the essence of who I am,” Carey tells Rolling Stone over Zoom in between wardrobe fittings for Mariah Carey: The Celebration of Mimi Live in Las Vegas, the residency she kicked off at Dolby Live at Park MGM on April 12 — and the reason she was so curious about the whereabouts of that sign. (“She actually wanted us to look for it in storage,” the singer’s longtime musical director Daniel Moore notes. “We definitely tried, but we couldn’t find it so we had to recreate it.”)

While the original golden sign has been lost to time — now replicated in a radiant neon pink — the music of the era and what it represented for her remains. Recently extended to 16 dates, the Las Vegas show travels back down the long road that led Carey to an artistic breakthrough. Similarly to her memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey, the show follows a narrative thread from the very beginning of her career to her emergence as one of pop music’s most legendary figures. Each segment of the show is a celebration of the music that, without question, cemented her in that pantheon.  

“The idea was brought to me about doing a residency in Vegas and I just thought, ‘Hm, do we want to do that?’” Carey recalls. “I was going to do it in the traditional way. And then when I thought about doing the Celebration of Mimi and bringing back the songs — many of which I’d never performed — I just thought, ‘That’s the way to do it.’”

Carey opens The Celebration of Mimi with her debut single “Vision of Love,” released in 1990. “That’s why we did it the way we did it where we start at ‘Vision of Love’ in the black dress. It’s a little bit different than the original black dress, but you know what I mean — we just started with that vibe. And then it connects to everything and we get to Mimi,” she says. This makes arriving at The Emancipation of Mimi on the hours-long setlist taste even sweeter. Her tenth album, the record followed 2002’s critically divisive Charmbracelet and unlocked something restorative within Carey. The pivotal, pop-dominating comeback debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 404,000 copies sold in its first week and spawned two chart-topping singles with “Don’t Forget About Us” and “We Belong Together.”

But when Carey sifts through her memories from that defining era, what stands out is how free she felt. “I know that’s the whole theme of it all,” she says. “But it really is being free and feeling emancipated.” The singer was able to reflect more deeply on the album when planning for The Celebration of Mimi began in January 2024. It marks Carey’s fourth Las Vegas residency and her first since The Butterfly Returns closed at Caesars Palace in 2020 after nearly two years. “It’s been a lot of years — and I don’t like to count years,” she says. “But it’s been something that I’ve really been able to just sit back and listen to and then rearrange and figure out exactly how the show’s going to be — as opposed to a record, or a single, or an album.”

The Celebration of Mimi features eight dancers, four band members, and three backing vocalists. “With every rehearsal, with every run through, she’s giving us more and more of herself,” says Jana Thompkins, the show’s creative director and choreographer. “That then turns into an inspiration for us to give and create more to build on that and to support that.” Moore adds: “We wanted to tell the story. We’re literally going to take you on a journey from the first time you saw and heard Mariah Carey. We don’t do numbers, but you can’t do these decades worth of music without having a six-hour show.” 

Carey prefers to operate in a space of timelessness; she and her camp are reluctant to place the emphasis on the anniversary of a nearly two-decade-old, career-defining album. Instead, they’re focused on celebrating Carey herself. “It was about: How do we find the journey, musically through the lyrics and transitions, to get to Emancipation? The whole show isn’t just Emancipation,” Moore continues. “It starts with telling you the story of how she became an artist from day one, all the way to what those experiences were like and why she felt the need to be emancipated. And then here we are, celebrating.”

Crafting the arrangement of the live show with Moore reminded Carey of the ways in which her relationship to The Emancipation of Mimi has changed over the years. “I think I get to love it more, if anything. Certain songs that I really didn’t get a chance to perform very much — like ‘I Wish You Knew,’ ‘Your Girl,’ and ‘Circles’ — we kind of made medleys out of a lot of these songs,” she says. “That album just ended up being my favorite body of work that I’ve done.” 

The Emancipation of Mimi has been certified seven-times platinum and produced four hit singles, including “It’s Like That, “We Belong Together,” “Shake It Off,” and “Don’t Forget About Us.” In addition to spending 14 weeks at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, “We Belong Together” earned nominations for Record and Song of the Year at the 2006 Grammy Awards. The song was awarded Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. That night, Carey also took home Best Contemporary R&B Album for The Emancipation of Mimi, which was also nominated for Album of the Year. She scored two additional nominations for “It’s Like That” and “Mine Again” in Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance, respectively. 

“We started out working on some songs that would end up being my favorites, like I mentioned ‘Your Girl’ before and I worked with the Neptunes on ‘Say Something’ and ‘To the Floor’ with Nelly. Those songs, I thought, okay, this is the direction of my album,” Carey recalls. “And then when I ended up sitting down with L.A. Reid, he was like, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna work with Jermaine [Dupri]?’ And I’m like, of course I’m gonna work with Jermaine. We just haven’t gotten there, slow down.”

Her process was collaborative and intentional, as she hoped to strike a balance between her classic ballads and a more hip-hop-infused approach to R&B. “When you sit down and go through the whole Emancipation of Mimi as an album, and go, ‘Some of these songs were a little bit more that way or a little bit more this way,’ it’s just really interesting,” she adds. “I love the album so much that it’s hard to pick it apart and go, ‘Oh, I like this part less than I like that part.’ It really is one unit.” 

Moore and Thompkins — who worked alongside co-choreographer Ashley Seldon Smith and creative consultant Jimmy Smith — were tasked with shaping how The Celebration of Mimi would be translated into the show in both music and movement. “Not only have we tried to go on a journey over time with the choreo, but we’ve also tried to literally embody what the music makes you feel, how it makes you want to move, how it inspires you and what it visually illustrates,” Thompkins says. 

She adds: “When you get into some of those more hip-hop elements, like the moments in a ‘Breakdown’ or ‘Baby Doll,’ things like that — I’m kind of snitching on the setlist, but that’s okay though — where she has those rap features, we really wanted to visually bring you into that hip-hop element, as it’s juxtaposed with the softness of the music in the song that she’s singing. So you will get that in this choreography when you visually see it. Everything’s not jazz. Everything’s not hip-hop. There are even moments where we go from one version of the song and then we go into a hip-hop version of the song.” 

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On the musical end, Moore tweaked arrangements of the medleys to include nods to past performances, like when she would sing “Always Be My Baby” live during the Music Box era. “There’s a moment where it’s just a medley of music, and we have a jam session between the dancers and the band and everybody just goes in,” Thompkins teases. “I think it’ll be a really enjoyable experience for the audience because I don’t know that anyone’s ever done this cluster of songs that I’m referring to.”

Carey and her creative team wanted to create a live experience that would go beyond any audience expectations. “My desire is not to look at it as a Vegas show. We’re trying to bring you into Mariah’s world. The hope is when you leave this show, you’re not just singing along in concert, but you actually get to know her in a more intimate space,” Moore explains. “You get to understand her train of thought, the way she wrote the songs, why they’re important to her, and you’d be able to see within yourself that everything is possible. You can come from this or you can come from that. But you can be free. You can be emancipated in your own journey.” 

Nearly 20 years after discovering liberation within The Emancipation of Mimi, Carey is still basking in it. “It’s like the emancipation never ends because I worked really hard to get there,” she says. “Coming back to the residency and doing this, it’s something that I really didn’t think I was gonna do. And now, in the middle of it, I’m realizing this is the essence of who I am.”

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