The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Don’t Forget About Us”

The Number Ones: Mariah Carey’s “Don’t Forget About Us”
Video mariah carey don’t forget about us

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

“Y’all know what this is!” Jermaine Dupri’s voice only shows up once on Mariah Carey’s “Don’t Forget About Us,” but Dupri makes that appearance on the song’s intro. Given that “Don’t Forget About Us” is about the lingering regret and nostalgia of an old breakup, it’s a bit weird to hear Dupri doing his whole hypeman routine, even just for a second. But Dupri’s quick appearance makes its own kind of sense. In 2004, Dupri had helped craft Usher’s blockbuster Confessions. A year later, Dupri was a big part of Mariah Carey’s monster comeback. Confessions was the biggest-selling album of 2004, and Mariah’s LP The Emancipation Of Mimi was the biggest-selling album of 2005. Also, Jermaine Dupri is right. We do know what this is. We know exactly what this is.

A few months after its release, The Emancipation Of Mimi had already sold four million copies in the US alone. “We Belong Together,” the album’s biggest hit, topped the Hot 100 for an insane 14-week run; Billboard later named it the #1 single of the decade. “We Belong Together” was so big that it blocked Mariah’s follow-up single from the top spot; her “Shake It Off” peaked at #2. (It’s a 6.) A few months after the album’s release, Mariah’s label boss LA Reid wanted her to release an unfinished song from the Emancipation sessions, and he suggested that she put it on a deluxe version of the album — a trick that had helped propel Usher’s Alicia Keys duet “My Boo” to #1 a year earlier. Mariah was into that idea, and “Don’t Forget About Us,” her once-unfinished song, became her 17th #1 hit.

In the pre-streaming era, the whole deluxe-edition thing was a transparent tactic to convince fans to buy additional copies of albums that they already owned, but that tactic worked. “Don’t Forget About Us” extended the Emancipation Of Mimi cycle, and it helped the album eventually go platinum seven times over. There’s some poetic justice in Mariah Carey scoring yet another #1 hit on the very last day of 2005. Mariah’s comeback had absolutely defined that pop year. When “Don’t Forget About Us” racked up a couple of weeks at #1, it was a well-earned victory lap.

LA Reid was the one who told Mariah Carey to get back together with Jermaine Dupri in the first place. Mariah was mostly done with The Emancipation Of Mimi, and Reid was excited about the way the album was shaping up, but he also convinced her that it would be better if she made some tracks with her “Always Be My Baby” collaborator Dupri. Mariah flew to Atlanta for a couple of sessions with Dupri, and those sessions yielded the singles “We Belong Together,” “Shake It Off,” and “It’s Like That.” It’s not too surprising to learn that “Don’t Forget About Us” came from the same session as “We Belong Together.”

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Mariah Carey co-wrote “Don’t Forget About Us” with Jermaine Dupri, Dupri’s regular collaborator Bryan-Michael Cox, and the young “We Belong Together” co-writer Johntà Austin. Mariah co-produced the song with Dupri and Cox. These people all knew how to work together, and they were firmly within their collective comfort zone. “Don’t Forget About Us” basically functions as a sequel to “We Belong Together.”

“We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us” are both midtempo lopes with tinkly pianos and boom-clap 808s. Mariah sings both songs the same way, largely staying away from the showboating melisma that made her famous and sticking instead with a rhythmically complex delivery that comes close to rapping. Both songs are about the aftermath of a breakup — maybe the same breakup — and they look at post-breakup feelings from slightly different angles. But this is one of those Avatar: The Way Of Water situations where I like the sequel better than the original. (A quick digression: Avatar: The Way Of Water fucking smacks. I want to go on the record with that. Best movie of 2022. Total-immersion cinema. If I didn’t have to write this column, I’d be at the theater right now, watching it again.)

Mariah Carey has long refused to say whether she was thinking of any particular relationship when she wrote “Don’t Forget About Us,” saying that any answer would make it harder for listeners to put themselves into the song. In her 2020 memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey, Mariah got pretty salacious about the stories behind some of her hits, but “Don’t Forget About Us” wasn’t one of them. I don’t think the song has to be about any one particular person. Instead, it’s about a universal kind of ache — looking back at a past relationship, reflecting on how important it was to you, hoping the other person still feels the same way.

Ultimately, “Don’t Forget About Us” is a song about distance and memory, whereas “We Belong Together” was about raw, immediate regret. “Don’t Forget About Us” has none of that urgency. Instead, it’s laid-back, almost flirty, but it’s still sad. Mariah Carey’s narrator has been out of a relationship for a long time, but part of her wishes that she was still with this guy. They’re still in some kind of contact, but she’s determined to keep her longing internal: “Now every time I see you, I pretend I’m fine/ When I wanna reach out to you, but I turn, and I walk, and I let it ride.”

As “Don’t Forget About Us” builds, Mariah Carey’s voice gets more intense. Near the end, she’s almost howling her ad-libs, but those wailing lead vocals are mixed low. The voice singing the chorus straight, almost expressionless, is the loudest one. Up front, we hear the Mariah that’s keeping it together, but the spinning-out, heartbroken one is still there, still visible on the surface. Throughout the track, she does amazing things with her voice, flitting from a soaring falsetto to a low, seductive throaty growl. At this point, that kind of mastery was what the world expected of Mariah Carey, but it’s still pretty amazing.

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“Don’t Forget About Us” is a formulaic work. Mariah started writing “We Belong Together” and “Don’t Forget About Us” at the same time, and the release of those two songs was definitely timed so that one song could coast on the other’s momentum. The songs speak to each other. I wouldn’t be surprised if the finished version of “Don’t Forget About Us” was intentionally made to sound as much like “We Belong Together” as possible. But I like “Don’t Forget About Us” better — partly because of the chillness in its glide, but mostly because it’s Mariah at the peak of her almost-rap delivery.

On “Don’t Forget About Us” bridge, Mariah Carey goes into full-on tongue-flipping speed-sing mode, cramming a whole lot of words into a bounce-driven meter. By that point, Mariah had collaborated with speed-rap all-stars like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Twista, and it’s fun to imagine her in the studio, watching those guys work and taking mental notes. Mariah knows that her ex is with someone else, but she’s still confident that she remains important to this guy: “Oh, they say that you’re in a new relationship/ But we both know nothing comes close to what we had, it perseveres.” (Something else that Mariah learned from rappers: The ability to deliver words like “relationship” and “perseveres” so that they almost sound like they rhyme.) On the bridge, Mariah cranks up the wild delivery and the shit-talk, doubling up her voice and going berserk with the quasi-rapping: “I bet she can’t do it like me! She’ll never be MC!” I believe her. This other lady truly never will be MC. Nobody else will.

Mariah Carey made the “Don’t Forget About Us” video with director Paul Hunter, who was two years removed from Bulletproof Monk and who would never get to make another movie again. (In the power rankings of late-’90s rap-video kings who only got to make one feature film, Paul Hunter sadly cannot compete with Hype Williams. Bulletproof Monk is no Belly.) Hunter had previously worked with Mariah on her “Honey” video, but his “Don’t Forget About Us” clip has none of the James Bond hijinks of that one. Instead, the “Don’t Forget About Us” is pretty low-concept. It’s just Mariah flashing back on an old flame and looking about as hot as she’s ever looked.

Mariah’s love interest in the “Don’t Forget About Us” video is Christian Monzon, a male supermodel who never really got an acting career going. Mariah and Monzon have some actual on-camera chemistry, but most of the clip is Mariah rocking extremely soft clothes and making eyes at the camera. Mariah’s a huge Marilyn Monroe fan, and there’s a scene where she’s in a hot tub with one leg up, reenacting a scene from Marilyn’s final film, 1962’s Something’s Got To Give. The point of the video seems to be: “Look at me! I look great!” Fair enough. Works for me.

“Don’t Forget About Us” got a couple of big rap remixes. Jermaine Dupri remixed the track himself, getting new Mariah vocals and verses from Juelz Santana and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony members Krayzie Bone and Layzie Bone — all past Number Ones artists in one way or another. Mariah had already worked with Bone, and it feels weirdly right to hear those guys on the song where Mariah kind of does the Bone flow. Juelz Santana had just been on Chris Brown’s chart-topper “Run It!,” and he definitely tries harder on the “Don’t Forget About Us” remix.

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Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” collaborator DJ Clue, who was part of Mariah’s band on the Emancipation Of Mimi arena tour, also did a “Don’t Forget About Us” remix, and that version appeared on Clue’s excellently titled mixtape Fidel Cashflow 2006. That remix featured Fabolous and Styles P, two New York rappers who were on a whole lot of pop-hit remixes around that time, doing the kind of back-and-forth tag-team flow that Styles usually did with his Lox partner Jadakiss. It also had Fab rhyming “visa” with “Ibiza” and “Condoleeza.” As in: “I brought you in like Bush did to Condoleezza.” The mid-’00s were weird times. (Fabolous’ two highest-charting singles, “Into You” with Tamia and “Can’t Let You Go” with Lil Mo, both peaked at #4 in 2003. “Into You” is a 5, and “Can’t Let You Go” is a 3. As lead artist, Styles P peaked at #22 with 2002’s “Good Times,” but he also got to #3 that same year as a guest on Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From The Block.” That one is a 7, but I bet Mariah Carey forgot about it.)

“Don’t Forget About Us” doesn’t have a huge legacy. If people remember that song, they tend to remember it as a kind of footnote to the momentous “We Belong Together” comeback. I get that, but as David Foster Wallace might’ve told you, footnotes can be a lot of fun. “Don’t Forget About Us” is a good song. Mariah Carey was always keenly aware of her place in chart history; when her Emancipation Of Mimi tour came to Madison Square Garden, she introduced “Don’t Forget About Us” by telling the crowd, “Thank you for making this my 17th #1 single.” It wasn’t her last. We’ll see Mariah in this column again.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: It’s not listed as a sample or an interpolation, but I always thought that D4L were riffing on the “Don’t Forget About Us” bridge on the hook for their 2006 single “Betcha Can’t Do It Like Me.” Checking right now, I’m realizing that’s probably impossible, since D4L’s album came out a week before the deluxe Emancipation Of Mimi reissue. But I’m still putting the “Betcha Can’t Do It Like Me” video down here, since I have no idea what else to put in this section. Here it is:

(“Betcha Can’t Do It Like Me” peaked at #72. D4L will appear in this column very soon.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. I hope this will remind you: When it’s real, it’s forever. Buy it here.