Superstars come in many forms. Some achieve greatness gradually, working the circuit for years with progresses in prominence until a pivotal moment — an unexpected awards sweep, a landmark performance or a well-received sonic or stylistic change — triggers an ascent into music’s top tier. Others, though, blast off with such force that it’s hard to believe they were virtual unknowns the year before. In the scope of Billboard charts, few arrivals rival Mariah Carey’s entrance, capitalized with her single “Emotions” topping the Billboard Hot 100 on Oct. 12, 1991, to give then-21-year-old star a historic record.
Thanks to “Emotions,” Carey became the first — and to date, only — artist to send her first five U.S. singles to No. 1 on the Hot 100. The feat, achieved in just over 16 months from her chart arrival, began with her debut release, “Vision of Love,” which reigned for four weeks in August 1990. Second single “Love Takes Time” followed it to the top that November, while third and fourth releases, “Someday” and “I Don’t Wanna Cry,” reached No. 1 in March and May 1991, respectively. With that song quartet, all from her eponymous debut LP, Carey tied The Jackson 5’s record from 1970 as the only two acts to begin their careers with four straight Hot 100 leaders.
Given the unique situation at hand — the next single could secure a one-time-only chance at this record — Carey and Columbia Records faced a choice: Release a fifth single from Mariah Carey or close this chapter and let anticipation for a second album build to maximize interest. As Billboard’s Paul Grein noted in his May 25, 1991, Chart Beat column — the same week that “Cry” reached No. 1 — the former thought was already dashed. “Columbia reports that it has no plans to release a fifth single from Carey’s album,” he wrote. “There are three likely reasons … to avoid overexposure, to protect Carey’s string of No. 1 hits, and to force cost-conscious fans to buy the album rather than wait for more singles.”
But there was another option. Bucking the tradition of pop stars waiting years to follow megahit albums, Carey and company elected to gear up for round two with sophomore album, Emotions, that fall. “I discussed it with everyone,” she told The New York Times in September 1991. “We decided I should put out a new album soon, because I was growing so much from the last album.” Grein also noted the play’s commercial point in the Aug. 31, 1991, Billboard: “Carey’s decision to follow up so quickly is apparently designed to consolidate her position as the new queen of pop/AC/R&B crossover.”
“Emotions,” a disco-pop track co-written and co-produced by Carey and the duo of David Cole and Robert Clivillés (better known as C+C Music Factory), debuted at No. 35 on the Hot 100 dated Aug. 31, 1991, the highest yet of Carey’s five releases. Six weeks later, the single evicted Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations,” featuring Loleatta Holloway, to rule the chart for the first of three weeks. Mission accomplished: Five singles, five No. 1s, the best starting streak for any performer in Hot 100 history.
Now, for number six. The follow-up single to “Emotions,” the ballad “Can’t Let Go,” entered the Hot 100 at No. 42 that November and skipped into the top 10 three weeks later. It crept from No. 8 to No. 7, No. 6, No. 4, No. 3 and No. 2, but in a dramatic finish, climbed no higher. After a record-setting start, Carey’s first single in six tries to miss the Hot 100’s top slot did so by one position. The next offering, “Make It Happen,” couldn’t course-correct either, although it still rose to No. 5.
For Carey to retake the No. 1 rank, she ironically borrowed from the group whose record she had just overtaken — The Jackson 5. In 1992, Carey appeared on MTV’s Unplugged series in an effort to rebuke naysayers who believed her famous whistle notes, like those that reach dizzying heights at the end of “Emotions,” were studio creations that she couldn’t reproduce live. Within the seven-song set, Carey included a cover of The Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” (with accompanying vocals from with Trey Lorenz) — incidentally, the very song in 1970 that gave the Jackson 5 their pre-Carey record of four career-opening No. 1s. Soon after, the new version became a single — and within weeks, Carey’s sixth Hot 100 champ.
Since that record-setting start, Carey has captured several more Hot 100 accolades. Among the most impressive: Her 19 No. 1s are the most of any solo act, and their combined 84 weeks in the top spot also ranks first in class. She most recently reigned in January 2021 with “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” her 1994 holiday classic that continues to be a gift that keeps on giving. It first reigned in 2019, but with its repeat trips to No. 1 in both 2020 and 2021, made her the first artist to rule the Hot 100 in four distinct decades.