Everyone knows Mariah Carey (search) is crazy.
She's the kind of diva who shows up late for her own birthday party -- because she broke a nail; who expects the red-carpet treatment, even at 2 a.m.; who has filled gossip sheets for years with tales of love gone wrong, outlandish business contracts and her short-lived career as a Popsicle vendor.
Yet Carey is also one of the most technically talented singers in music, with a range that can scrape baritone or hit notes that break glass.
She's beautiful, sexy and a shrewd negotiator whose dream of stardom rescued her from poverty and propelled her to an estimated net worth of $300 million.
So it's fitting that her new album is titled "The Emancipation of Mimi," (search) which Carey says signifies freedom from her past and the shackles of other people's expectations. Mimi is the name that only Carey's closest friends and family call her.
"L.A. said he thought he heard the real me on this record, the person my family knows. He heard uninhibited Mimi," Carey told The Post in an exclusive interview.
"So that's what we ended up with when we sat down and worked on the title. It was easy after suggestions like 'Daydream,' 'Butterfly' and 'Rainbow' came up. I thought, what's next, 'Unicorn?' That would piss the critics off," she adds wryly.
Carey, who just turned 35, doesn't say it, but she also hopes to be emancipated from the twisted wreckage of her disastrous "Glitter" (search) era.
Artists make mistakes, and the public and industry forgets and forgives -- usually.
In the case of Carey, though, forgetting has been hard.
She was the best-selling female artist of the '90s, moving a whopping 140 million CDs for Columbia. Then, in 2000, she signed the biggest record contract in history -- an $80 million deal with Virgin Records.
But the stakes were too high. At the height of her popularity, she began to implode. Her troubles culminated in suicide messages on her Web site and an unsettling appearance on MTV's "TRL" -- where, dressed in just a T-shirt, she babbled and distributed Popsicles to the audience.
Things went from bad to worse when the movie "Glitter," released in 2001, tanked and became a critical whipping horse. Thanks to weak sales of less than 500,000, the album was her first -- and last -- disc for Virgin, which released her from her contract and gave her $28 million just to go away.
After recuperating at her home on the Mediterranean island of Capri with her pooch, Jack, Carey, richer and wiser about the music business, faced the world again with "Charmbracelet" for Island, her new label. The 2003 disc did well and bolstered her shaken confidence.
The new record, "Mimi," is stripped of glitter, allowing the singer to get back to her R&B roots. It's also a slap in the face to the Virgin boys who didn't have the guts to stick with the singer when times got tough.
When "Giltter" crashed and burned, it wasn't as much the singer's fault as Virgin's, which didn't understand her, Carey says. The label wanted another pop tart to compete with Christina and Britney, and Carey had moved on.
With the passion of a wrongfully accused woman, Carey insists, "I never saw myself as a pop singer."
It's a strange statement, considering Carey owned Top 40 radio all through the '90s.
But the truth is, her breakthrough single was the power ballad "Vision of Love" -- which first hit on the R&B charts.
"I was really surprised it went anywhere in pop, because 'Vision' was very raw, very R&B," Carey says. "A lot of rap artists I've worked with mention 'Vision of Love' as a song that really meant something to them. It was a ballad, but I think it showed how rooted I am in urban music."
Carey isn't kidding about her urban roots. Her interracial parents broke up when she was 3, and Carey was raised with her older brother and sister by her mom, who struggled to make ends meet. Carey often has said hip-hop music was her refuge from a tough childhood.
"I grew up listening to it. I loved it. Some people came to hip-hop when it developed mass appeal. I started with the Sugar Hill Gang (search). I know and respect what hip-hop artists do, and they know that," she says.
The admiration is mutual. The artists who've clamored to work with Carey form a Who's Who of hip-hop's royalty, including Jay-Z, Ludacris and Busta Rhymes.
One of Carey's earliest direct connections to rap was in '96. "I was dying to work with O.D.B. [of the Wu Tang Clan] on a remix of 'Fantasy,' may he rest in peace.
"I pulled the wool over my record company's eyes, because they had no idea what or who I was talking about when I mentioned O.D.B.," she says. "That record was also the first time I worked with Puffy. It was a turning point for me because it was an official street record. I'd be walking around New York and hear it blasting out of Jeeps."
These days, even the dullest record executive recognizes the value of rap/pop smash-ups. On "Mimi," songs like "To the Floor," featuring Nelly, and "Say Something," with Snoop Dogg, aren't afterthoughts. They are songs that will be the mainstream releases.
Carey is quick to point out that it was luck and timing that created both of those songs.
"I'd never worked with Pharrell [Williams] before, although we've been friends for a while. This was the first chance we had to record together. We got into a studio in L.A. and Nelly was in the next room working on his record and Snoop was in another room working on his, and somehow we all ended up in the same studio together. It became a big party."
That in itself is unusual for Carey, who in the past demanded secure solitude when recording. The L.A. "party" sessions stand as another indication of her emancipation.
"It was a little weird because I'm used to doing my vocals alone, but it was fun to party with these guys."
Longtime fans will discover a new looseness to this record, a first for Carey, a notorious perfectionist.
On the midtempo ballad "We Belong Together," Carey fretted so long over the background vocals that she ran out of time for cutting the lead. "That forced me to treat that session as if it were a live performance."
When it comes to her romantic relationships, Carey remains tight-lipped. She's reluctant to speak about her marriage to and divorce from the former Sony Records honcho Tommy Mottola (search), or her romantic ties with Bronx Bomber Derek Jeter (search), Latin crooner Luis Miguel or Detroit rapper Eminem (search).
Yet it's easy to see that she's her own woman now, and doesn't want to be tied to any man -- Svengali or not.
"Being female, I notice so many people want to guide me," she says. "I'm cool with being collaborative, but I don't want to be led.
"This whole record is looser and I had more fun making this one than I've had in a long time. When you record an album, no matter who you are, people try to tell you what to do and what sounds best for you.
"This record was about me experimenting with my voice. It came close to what it was like when I started out," she says.
It's all about the music for Carey, but even after taking her licks for "Glitter," she plans a return to film.
"The problem was 'Glitter' was about a diva moment. It was too close to my life," she says.
"Another thing that people don't remember about 'Glitter' is that it came out the week of 9/11. The movie became a pressure release for everyone dealing the intensity of the attacks. 'Glitter' was the safe joke of the day."
Carey's has had better luck in a less-than-diva role -- playing a small-town waitress in the indie flick "Wisegirls." (search)"That made me see how good an experience movies can be," she says. "When we showed it at Sundance, we got a standing ovation. Too bad nobody remembers the good movie, they just remember the great debacle.
"Sean Penn came up to me at a party after Sundance and told me he saw and enjoyed 'Wisegirls,' and not to give up just because of one bad movie," Carey adds. "I was thrilled. You can't get better praise and advice in the movie business."
She was also quick to define the difference between the two films.
"In 'Wisegirls,' I was acting. That character couldn't be farther from my life. I got to go to work and not be Mariah Carey. It was like a vacation.
"It was a great release."