Looks like the latest theme for this Every Number-One Single challenge is “slow R&B ballads about heartbreak with polished, dance-pop production sung by hugely prominent female performers”. I swear, though, that this song coming right after “Take a Bow” is nothing more than mere coincidence by way of my randomizer. It’s debatable over who is the bigger deal in this particular instance, as both Carey and Rihanna are among the most successful artists of all time… but we’ll save that debate for another day.
In all honesty, no matter how much detail I get with this particular review, it’s only telling half the story – because I’ve got it all backwards here! In order to understand the success of this song, it’s important to remember that Mariah Carey’s previous number-one single, “We Belong Together”, was a much, much bigger deal. Earlier that summer, it placed at the number-one spot for fourteen non-consecutive weeks, the second-longest length for any song at the top, and is the top song for 2005 as a whole. Thus, when Carey re-released her hugely successful tenth album The Emancipation of Mimi (from whence “We Belong Together” came) and announced “Don’t Forget About Us” as the first single from this Ultra Platinum Edition, fans were quick to point out the heavy comparisons between the two hits.
In this case, though, lightning seemed to have struck twice, and “Don’t Forget About Us” eventually became Carey’s seventeenth number-one single. It stayed at the top spot for two weeks that winter, becoming both the last number-one single of 2005 and the first of 2006. I’ll save a solid overview of “We Belong Together” for when I actually get around to it in this challenge, but for now I’ll mention that there’s one crucial thread that ties that song to “Don’t Forget About Us”, inevitably leading to its success. That thread is producer Jermaine Dupri, who gained much acclaim for his work on Mariah’s hugely popular track and returned to produce this one as well.
Dupri is an producer from Atlanta who has his beginnings in the late 80s and the early 90s, notably for working with acts such as Kriss Kross, Lil Kim, and Da Brat. It was during this time that he worked with Carey for the first time, for her track “Always Be My Baby” – given that she was still in her early stages of superstardom, this track – yes – topped the charts! In the decade leading up to The Emancipation of Mimi, Dupri worked on and off with Carey but also collaborated with a number of other up-and-coming artists. Notably, he was a factor in elevating Usher to fame and fortune as well, producing his early tracks “You Make Me Wanna”, “My Way”, “Nice & Slow”, and “U Got It Bad” (the latter two being number-one singles), as well as cuts from his more mature album Confessions, including “Burn”, “Confessions Part II”, and “My Boo” (all chart-toppers). The point to be made here is that if you’re a young R&B starlet yearning for the spotlight, the chart success, and all the Grammys, Jermaine Dupri is the guy for you.
For the most part, the majority of Dupri’s productions that top the charts are in the mid- to low-tempo R&B ballad category, though there are many exceptions (like “Grillz”!). Unfortunately, though, as evident by some of the Usher songs mentioned, there’s also a tendency for many of his similar tracks to sound nearly indistinguishable from one another. Indeed, this is probably the main qualm to be had with “Don’t Forget About Us” – listening to this one side-by-side with “We Belong Together”, its hard to ignore the extreme similarities in the smooth, polished backing instrumental, both interpolating heavy bass with more delicate handclaps. Even Mariah seems to be playing by the same handbook in both, opting for softer vocals in the early verses, building up into intensity until exploding in her signature emotional delivery in the final parts of the song.
And yes, just like the song that came before, “Don’t Forget About Us” tells the all-too-familiar story of heartache following the breakup of a passionate relationship. And it’s very clear in this particular song that the speaker isn’t taking it well at all, fully enamored in intimate memories with no desire to just let them go (“Late nights, playin’ in the dark / And wakin’ up inside my arms”). These feelings are definitely familiar and I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks so. I guess I’m just not a fan of how meek and pathetic she comes off in this narrative, especially since she’s made it clear that her ex-lover has moved on (“They say that you’re in a new relationship / But we both know nothing comes close to what we had; it perseveres”). In the bridge, she even goes as far to insult the new woman, fully committed to the idea that she was the best he had and nothing else could improve upon it (“And if she’s got your head all messed up now, that’s the trickery… I bet she can’t do like me; she’ll never be MC”).
It’s at this point where I’m fully convinced that this song is little more than a lesson in masochism. There is little sign of emotional growth, only endless pain and jealousy. To continue to draw parallels with my previous review, there is little sign here of the pompous empowerment of “Take a Bow” or “Irreplaceable”; in fact, this song has more in common with the icy heartbreak of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick” (which I will get to eventually). Overall, though, “Don’t Forget About Us” feels like little more than “We Belong Together Part 2”, both lyrically and stylistically – though even the lyrics don’t quite measure up in this respect. Nonetheless, Carey mentions in the song herself that this is a “first true love”, which could very well explain the confused emotions and instability. This doesn’t always make for the most pleasant listening material, though. For now, at least, I’ll stick with “We Belong Together”.