“Church,” And Why Mariah The Scientist Deserves More Grace

(Courtesy of Vibe Magazine Written by Austin Williams )

Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream. 

It could be argued social media narratives impact the way an artist’s music is received more profoundly than any marketing budget or promo cycle. Once the internet decides a rapper or singer is defined by something, that definition sticks until it suddenly doesn’t. J. Cole has only recently garnered respect from maturing millennials who a decade ago made NyQuil jokes about his raps on Twitter. Wale is just now receiving his flowers after years of being ridiculed for so-called rants and outbursts that today seem justified. In R&B, the latest artist up against an unfair narrative is Mariah the Scientist, whose music has been overshadowed by jokes about her skill as a performer. 

At times, I’ve been both a participant and willful bystander once a narrative about an artist or their music gets going. I’ve called Cole boring and Wale whiny, and I’ve watched silently as people have complained about Megan Thee Stallion’s repetitive subject matter despite praising Pusha T and Griselda for maintaining a similar consistency. But in the case of Mariah the Scientist, I’ve committed a crime far worse than complicity: I was duped by the narrative that the singer-songwriter possessed a beauty to skill ratio that made her more pleasant to look at than to listen to. Because I never bothered to do the latter for myself.

On Nov. 14, 2021, Twitter reacted to a viral video of Mariah the Scientist giving an uninspired performance of her single “Beetlejuice” at Day N Vegas. The video’s caption read, “She’s so pretty,” likely referencing a long-held and at times validated belief that some light-skinned singers benefit from the pretty privilege that comes with colorism despite them having lackluster vocals. From that point on, Twitter did what Twitter does. The notion that she’s a better studio singer than stage singer quickly morphed into a narrative through which some have suggested she’s wholly untalented, which I recently discovered is false. 

Before seeing that video, my only knowledge of Mariah the Scientist came from scrolling past two projects of hers on Tidal and noting she may have the most subtly creative album covers I’ve seen in recent memory. Nonetheless, I didn’t listen to them because I don’t have time to listen to everything, and I’ve done this long enough that I don’t really feel the need to pretend otherwise. But after appreciating the portrait she postedalongside a Tweet announcing the March 11 release of her latest EP, I decided to give Mariah’s music a chance.

From the moment I heard “Church,” the very first song on the 24-year-old’s new project, Buckles Laboratories Presents: The Intermission, I felt dumb for not having tapped in sooner. Ironically, the song originally appeared as a demo on her 2018 debut SoundCloud EP, To Die For, meaning there’s a world in which I could have been a Mariah the Scientist fan from the beginning. 

The sole love song on the four-track collection, “Church” struck me with a warmth that I didn’t expect from an artist so polarizing. The fact that someone could hear this song and still fix their fingers to degrade its author isn’t necessarily surprising (all artists have detractors), but it’s certainly disappointing. While the track doesn’t contain any revolutionary sounds, singing, or songwriting, the sum of its parts works to create a record that soothes the anxieties of someone like me who worries love songs may be a lost art.

“All these people in this room but
I think they only see the two of us, can you blame ‘em?
Excuse us, can we get through?
Now I’m talking like we famous
Maybe it’s this music that’s got me in the groove
Of the moment, we should frame it
I’m shifting your mood and
You describe it like a flower when it blooms but
You just can’t explain it”

The lyrics of “Church” are noticeably sparse, with the song only offering one verse and a chorus that gets sung twice. The track’s brevity paired with its mellow, guitar-laden production makes it endlessly replayable. My finger begins to hover over the rewind button around the time the horns come in during the outro, which begins about midway through the record. But first, Mariah depicts a scene with a lover who predates her rise to stardom. 

Earlier this month, the singer revealed to Billboard that “Church” was originally recorded in 2016 as a part of an elaborate Valentine’s Day gift gone wrong. As the story goes, she recorded a handful of songs, including this one and “Beetlejuice,” stored them on an iPod, and gifted the device to the man she was seeing at the time.  

For whatever reason, the gift went unappreciated. Her guy never listened to it. “He texted me within the last year and said, ‘I think I still got the iPod somewhere,’” she told the publication. “We’re half a decade past that now—you should’ve listened to it when I gave it to you!” 

When examining the lyrics of “Church,” it’s helpful to understand they were written by a teenage biology student attending St. John’s University while crushing on a boy as aloof as any other barely grown undergrad. That’s to say there’s a great deal of romantic imagination in this record because that’s all folks have to write about at that age. Years later, though, there’s a lasting sweetness to the way these lyrics land.

The verse begins with a sequence that now feels like it’s set in a club but back then must have actually been at a dorm party. Mariah and her man, beaming with so much chemistry they can’t help but draw attention to themselves, attract the eyes of other partygoers. The young lovers make their way through a wall of bodies like a power couple parting a sea of paparazzi.

Midway through the verse is when the song matures from adolescent fantasy to evergreen romance. The lyrics move inward as Mariah attempts to identify the sensation she and her partner are feeling and determine its cause. She wonders if it’s the music or the moment they’re swept up in, and watches as her muse’s mood blossoms like a flower in bloom.

Even as it was written for a man who presumably only heard it once the rest of the world did, there’s a sentimentality to this verse that defies the disillusionment R&B artists have become known for these past few years. This non-toxic breath of fresh air continues in the chorus.

“But you take me to the sun and the moon
Then back to Earth
You’ll be the preacher
I’ll be the pew
Take me to church”

Given recent criticisms of Mariah the  Scientist’s live singing, it’s worth noting there’s significantly better singing featured on “Church.” This is specifically true of the song’s chorus, as she strings together a series of passionate runs about the religious and intergalactic experience of falling in love. The vocals on this record aren’t perfect but they’re delivered with more power and spirit than what I and others heard during that 22-second Day N Vegas clip. 

Despite the social media narrative that she can’t sing being grossly overstated, the upstart is aware that her stage show needs work. “I can’t disagree with [the critics],” she admitted to Billboard. “I do agree that a lot of those performances I did in the last year have been really bad. I hate that for myself. But the only thing I can do now is work really hard at trying to make it better.” 

A part of that work includes her having to play catchup with her peers, powerhouse performers the likes of Jazmine Sullivan and Ari Lennox, for example. “A lot of people prepare for this their entire life,” she noted. “I just decided one day I was going to make a career out of something that I was gifting somebody on a whim.” 

With one of the songs from that slept-on gift leading her latest offering, I hope other close-minded listeners learn to appreciate Mariah the Scientist more than I or her college boyfriend did. That’s the least she deserves at this point.

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