It has been seven years since her last release and that “crack is whack” interview. It has been two years since her divorce from Bobby Brown and since the start of long charm offensive for the new clean image. But now we have a new Whitney Houston album called I Look To You.
After listening to it, praise must be devoted to her conquest over adversity than to a triumph of an album that has two major problems. The first is unfortunate. Houston’s voice was an outstanding instrument, but it isn’t just aging – it has suffered neglect and abuse. It now has a gravelly, raspy quality rather than the florid, clear, encompassing, effortless sound that put her career in the stratosphere.
She’s been left with a diminished range; high notes are now untenable. The dazzle, prettiness and litheness have disappeared. She can still lift the roof but she is limited, like a foghorn, to one or two notes and even those are thrown in like poor punctuation, inelegantly.
But I Look To You is still the work of a star who still retains a place at the top table. A wide range of the best producers and writers in the business have been brought in to help her keep it with tracks mostly of a mid-tempo nature. Core messages sway universally between love and endurance.
Opener Million Dollar Bill is a light, disco-flecked number about the value of being loved written by Alicia Keys and produced by Swizz Beatz. It is fun, infectious and perfect for a little bumping on the dancefloor. Producer Danja puts some classy synth work on Whitney’s dedication to detractors, Nothin’ But Love. It is addressed to critics and haters around the world, letting them to know that Whitney forgives and embraces them all.
The title track is masterminded by R Kelly and has his signature portent “Every road that I’ve taken/ Led to my regrets/ And I don’t know if I am going to make it / Nothing to do but lift my head”. The simple piano chords, light percussion and soft swathes of strings rely heavily on the vocal performance to colour the song. And there’s the rub; she fails to deliver with full force, struggling with some of the low notes.
I Didn’t Know My Own Strength is a saccharine, schmaltzy ballad that’s full of spiritual uplift and propounds power and overcoming hardship. Strings are deployed in full crescendo and Whitney’s voice swoops affirmatively.
Yet through all of this something rings hollow; the album’s second major problem is that her performance often seems distant. Houston did not contribute to the writing of any of the album’s songs; while this is not unusual, it makes for an album that shows no vulnerability, avoiding confrontations with pain and the past and preferring instead to be forward facing. It’s sterile. For a diva this can spell disaster.
Whitney is no longer a girl now, but yet there are too few hints of the experienced woman who should’ve taken her place. An up-tempo cover of A Song For You, made famous by Donny Hathaway, has an edge of autobiography to it, and on Salute she snaps “don’t call this a comeback, I’ve been here for years”. She might even be taking a dig at Bobby with the line “You think that your shit doesn’t stink… took me all of these years to realize you don’t belong here”. But these are mere sops.
Has she fallen to earth to become “just another artist”? Has the production been handled too cautiously? These are questions to debate. But the only evidence we have is a middling album marking a new chapter in a diva’s life that doesn’t sound any cheerier than the chapters that went before.