Neither rehash or rebirth, Whitney Houston’s new album becomes a wake for one of America’s greatest voices. Whitney Houston’s comeback campaign – announced two years ago by benefactor Clive Davis – has arrived today in the form of I Look to You, her first album since 2002 and since ending her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown. Of course any Tina Turner comparisons would be inaccurate, and it’s clear from bouncy opener “Million Dollar Bill” that Houston differs from Turner in another important way: sadly, Whitney’s voice did NOT survive the marriage.
Gone is her distinctively clear timbre, appearing slightly rougher and even nasally at points, as if she’s holding back from full projection. Houston fares better on piano ballads like the R. Kelly-penned title track, which could sound like an old Bodyguard soundtrack outtake if not for her muddled lower register (thankfully, her sweet falsetto cooing is in tact).
This is definitely a sad moment for American music, considering the influence of Houston’s talent on everyone from Mariah Carey to Christina Aguilera. Since her stellar 1985 debut, Whitney’s forceful voice and its range transformed decent pop songs (let’s face it, much of her 80s output could’ve fit Celine Dion as well) into still-enduring classics. Can you imagine “The Greatest Love of All” or “I Will Always Love You” without her vocal acrobatics? Since she was never a songwriter (she co-wrote only two songs on what will certainly be touted as her most personal album), her gift was her voice, and for years she was the best around. She even turned the national anthem into a hit single.
The forced production doesn’t help her comeback bid either. A slew of producers from David Foster to Swizz Beatz place her in bad situation after bad situation, from an ill-informed duet with Akon (the latest in a long time for Houston) on the vocoder-using “Like I Never Left”. She very well may be dating the much-younger Ray J, but the 46-year-old sounds awkwardly out of place throughout the uber-trendy thumping dance tracks.
Houston is a product of the pre-hip-hop age, where pop songs didn’t require a strong beat (check the AM-radio, soft-rock arrangements of her first few records). Her rich, soulful voice transcended the pop confines early on, but didn’t exactly fit in after the age of “New Jack Swing”. (Although she couldn’t swing a transformation like Mariah, Whitney’s My Love is Your Love was tastefully done.) She’s always occupied a strange realm in between the pop world and urban music world. In 2009 the two are indelibly linked, but for Whitney it just doesn’t work. Ironically, the production of her sincere bubblegum songs like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” would’ve fit in much better, what with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry selling like hotcakes.
While the piano-driven, gospel-themed songs make the record listenable, the confessional lyrical possibilities are squandered since hit makers like Alicia Keys to Diane Warren wrote the words. We don’t learn anything about Whitney herself on this album, despite its shamelessly suggestive exploitation of her personal struggles. (If that album cover doesn’t scream “rebirth”, I don’t know what does.)
The rehabilitation/coming-out-of-the-dark theme grows wearisome by mid-album because it’s done in such a forced, clichéd, impersonal way. By the time you reach the closer “Salute”, which desperately tried to emulate Mary J. Blige’s genuine survivor aesthetic, you’re sick of Houston mentioning “haters” or people who think their “shit don’t stink”. When she quotes LL Cool J (“Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years”), you hope she hasn’t replaced one toxic male influence (Bobby “Humpin’ Around” Brown) for another (Clive “out of touch” Davis).
These days, singing well isn’t a prerequisite for superstardom (take the lovely yet limited Beyonce, for instance), but that particular feature comprised Houston’s musical identity more than anything. Without that vocal fire that made the beautiful couplets of “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” sound downright effortless, Whitney needs a new game plan. One reason “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” is easily the record’s best singing performance is because it hints at the possibility of a flinty-throated new direction for her. In the meantime, I’ll cross my fingers & revisit my copy of The Greatest Hits. Perhaps Whitney should check out some late-era Billie Holiday.---David Sason
UPDATE: Whitney Houston's Voice Cracks at Comeback Show, She Blames Oprah (Video & article on Huffington Post)