The Tentative Return of Whitney Houston


We all know the dish. We all laughed at the jokes. We all gawked as she announced she made too much money to smoke crack. We all watched as America’s mega-platinum sweetheart with the perfect (too perfect, critics carped) voice and drop-dead looks imploded, making a funeral nearly as likely as a comeback. The eagerly anticipated (and delayed) I Look to You is not quite great enough to be the latter, but certainly not terrible enough to be the former.

As for Whitney herself, she makes her opinion known on “Salute,” one of two R. Kelly cuts, wherein she quotes, verbatim, LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback.” Yeah, whatever. What makes You fascinating is that you can’t help but wonder if Whitney’s insistence is aimed as much to the public, press, and the record industry at large as toward herself. That the reason she doth protest a bit too much is because we’re not the only ones wondering if one of the most influential pop/r&b singers of all time still has the goods. Maybe she’s curious, too—24 years after her effervescent debut and seven years after the disappointing Just Whitney, with enough crack, drama, rehab, Bobby Brown, reality TV, and recovery to fill several lifetimes, the woman who once sang “How Will I Know” now knows far too much. Her beauty is blurred by a hint of weariness. Her once-stunning voice is huskier and tentative, the upper register scuffed up, for obvious reasons. (The way she stunk up Good Morning America is plenty proof of that.) Can she still sing? Compared to much of what’s out there now, yes. Certainly. Can she stack up against the “old” Whitney? Does she still have it? Depends on what your definition of “it” is.

Among the myriad risks when a superstar climbs back into the ring is the conundrum of how to stay current without sounding like you’re struggling to fit into your teenage daughter’s skinny jeans. Houston splits the difference here by working with the young’uns, but focusing, to the point of exhaustion, on relatively adult but generic themes. Strength. Determination. Triumph over adversity. Survival. Coming out of darkness into light (that’s an actual lyric). Did I mention strength? Even so, there’s some pretty good stuff here, “Nothin’ But Love” the best of all. With Danjahandz laying down synths that would make Heaven 17 tingle, Whitney alternately spouts and snarls affirmations, her voice raw, her anger righteous.

The less-pretty-good stuff? Start with Diane Warren’s overstuffed power ballad “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”: The title says it all. Lying somewhere in between are contributions from Akon (who, other than that annoying “konvict” dribble, does no harm); Kelly’s mash-up of gangsta and God; Stargate (a/k/a Norway’s answer to Babyface) offering a gentle “Call You Tonight”; and Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz teaming up for “Million Dollar Bill,” whose sprightly motown feel doesn’t quite fit the record’s overall Oprah-ness.

Speaking of whom, guess who’s doing Whitney’s first TV interview? Fire up those scented candles! Maybe Lady O can help Houston reveal herself in a way she doesn’t quite manage on I Look to You, which might have benefited her had she looked more to herself. She’s got a hell of a story, and she doesn’t need three octaves to tell it.