• IF ONLY MARIAH CAREY'S MUSIC HAD the drama of her life. Her songs are often sugary and artificial--Nutrasweet soul. But her life has passion and conflict. Carey's mother is white, her father is black, and she is constantly prodded by skin-color busybodies to define her racial identity. Raised on Long Island, Carey grew up so financially strapped that she and her divorced mother sometimes had to move in with friends. Last year, in a revelation pursued aggressively by the tabloids, it came out that Carey's sister is HIV-positive and, according to some reports, that Carey's mother had taken the sister's son away from her.

    But through all this, Carey has prospered. Now she's so rich she's not sure how many rooms there are in her mansion in New York's suburban Westchester County. In 1993 she married her boss, Tommy Mottola, president of Sony Music Entertainment (which owns her label, Columbia). In the past six years, she's sold more than 60 million albums worldwide. Still, given the vagaries of her life, it's always been odd and a little sad that Carey's music has remained so tidy and predictable. Where is her life in her work?

    Well, one answer is she hasn't lived that long. At 25, she is still maturing as a performer, and still bubbling with youthful enthusiasm and ambition. "I've always been 100% driven to do this," she says of stardom. "Every minute of my life." But while she yearns for respect from critics, she also harbors the sometimes contradictory desire for blockbuster commercial success. One of the things that inspires her, she says, is "never wanting to have that feeling again of instability and that the rug could be pulled out from under me, because that's how I've always felt."

    Carey's eponymous 1990 debut album brimmed with soulful promise, but her follow-up efforts, Emotions (1991) and Music Box (1993), while huge sellers, seemed strained and mechanical, sort of like playing an Aretha Franklin record through the speakers of a Macintosh computer. "I went into this phase of recording, recording, recording and doing it really fast," Carey concedes. On her forthcoming CD, Daydream, which will arrive in stores the first week of October, Carey says she has been more faithful to her muse: "This time I had more time and I focused more on what I wanted to do."

    It shows. Daydream is a refreshingly understated piece of work and her best album yet. Her vocals are strong and serenely passionate. Her lyrics (she co-writes nearly all her songs) are smarter, and her rhymes more artful and flowing: "As we drifted to another place in time/ And the feeling was so heady and sublime." The music too has improved. Gone are the crashing synthesizer sounds and the overwhelming orchestrations. The songs on Daydream are restrained, such as the cool, blissfully nostalgic Underneath the Stars and the subdued, romantic Melt Away. And on the CD's final track, the stark Looking In, Carey gives us more of a glimpse behind her cheery facade than she ever has: "She wades in insecurity/ And hides herself inside of me."

    In person, though, Carey is all smiles and adolescent mannerisms. Her conversation is sprinkled with vague, teeny-bopperish adjectives: bad things are "weird"; good things are "real." Ol' Dirty Bastard--a hard-core rapper who appears on a remix of her new single, Fantasy--is "real, the most real you can get." Her sister's troubles, she says in response to a question, are "weird." Later she is more forthcoming, though not especially enlightening: "I haven't spoken to her in a long time, but I hope she's [well]," she says. "People don't realize we're all human beings, and when they take your personal nightmares and make them into public ones, it's very difficult. But everything seems to have worked itself out."

    Carey is equally guarded about her well-publicized marriage to record exec Mottola--except to suggest that there is something of a generation gap in their musical tastes. Mottola, 45, would rather she record soft, palatable ballads, she says; Carey favors songs that are "urban and younger." But not to worry: "As far as music goes, we're pretty much in synch," she asserts. "We have a great relationship, and like anyone, we have to work things through."

    Carey is more animated on the subject of race. She complains that the press and the public seem "obsessed" with her racial identity. "I view myself as a human being," she says with a sigh. "My father's Venezuelan and black, my mother's Irish, and I consider myself to be a combination of all those things. To say I'm only [one or the other] would be negating the other things that I am." Although Carey likes to champion her multicultural heritage in conversation, she often fails to do so through her music, which, up to now, has been been mostly bland and generic. Whether there are more colors in Carey's musical palette is still undetermined. But the classy Daydream might just be her first step toward a more fulfilling, multihued musical future.