With 'I Look to You,' Whitney Houston Eyes a Comeback

By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 31, 2009

Among other things, the '00s will be remembered as the decade of the diva flameout, a long national nightmare of public crackups, disastrous marriages and no-panty flashings from which only Christina Aguilera has emerged unscathed. Whitney Houston, 46, has had the most spectacular catalogue of troubles -- rumors of hard-core substance abuse, her once-fabled voice poised at the edge of ruin, a marriage to bad-boy Bobby Brown -- and her comeback has taken the longest; at times it seemed the most in doubt.

Finally comes her first regular studio album in seven years, "I Look to You," hitting stores today. It's an exercise in high-class image rehab intended to restore her dignity (battered by years of embarrassment and spectacle) almost as much as her sales figures. It also can't help but serve as a divining rod, gauging the ability of old-school superstars to move product in an era that treats old-school superstars as though they were as disposable as the regular kind.

This is Houston's second comeback disc, following 2002's "Just Whitney," which was just middling. "I Look to You" gets it right. It is a finely calibrated, just-modern-enough mix of mom-friendly club bangers and dauntless ballads that, in retrospect, seems like the only album she could have made. It's an Oprah's Book Club selection in album form, a collection of songs assembled around a familiar story line: a fall, a struggle for self-acceptance and love, a redemption.

"I Look to You" is loaded with well-crafted, boilerplate songs about climbing the mountain and weathering the storm. Most could have been written for anyone, by anyone. "Don't call it a comeback/I've been here for years," Houston warns in "Salute." Doing what, she doesn't say.

It was at the height of her fame that Houston's life went awry.

The daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, Whitney was a part-time model barely out of her teens when she was discovered by record industry legend Clive Davis. Her self-titled 1985 debut became one of the best-selling albums of all time, provided a blueprint for the pop/dance/R&B-melding careers of Mariah Carey and others, and introduced the world to "The Voice," an octave-spanning, gravity-defying melismatic marvel.

Several years and countless hits later, Houston married Brown, a sometime member of New Edition turned full-time ne'er-do-well. A starring role in the movie "The Bodyguard," with its behemoth hit cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You," followed.

And that's when the rumblings of drug and marital problems began to dog Houston. By the early part of this decade, disaster piled on top of disaster: At Michael Jackson's '01 anniversary concert, she looked like a ghost; then there was the infamous "crack is whack" interview with Diane Sawyer and the canceled Oscar performance.

In 2005, Houston appeared on her husband's reality show, "Being Bobby Brown," a venture whose sheer awfulness cannot be fully expressed in words. She disappeared from view soon after, emerging only to divorce Brown in 2007.

"I Look to You" represents her return not only to music but also to a wider, much-changed world, one more familiar with Houston's heavily chronicled, often-mocked personal problems than with her body of work.

It also signals the return of Davis, who supervises a smart, carefully edited team of producers and songwriters, ensuring that what could have been an unruly collection of superstar talent run amok functions here as a disciplined unit. "I Look to You" is never transcendent, but it feels cohesive, and it hits all the right marks.

The sprightly "Million Dollar Bill," written by Alicia Keys and produced by Swizz Beatz, is the closest thing the disc has to a hip-hop club track; the Danja-produced "Nothin' but Love," a gentle hater takedown featuring shout-outs to Houston's exes and her crew, is mystifying (Whitney Houston has a crew?) but nimble.

Elsewhere, there are aerobic R&B songs both great ("For the Lovers") and lightweight ("Call You Tonight"). A remake of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" functions as the obligatory show-stopping cover, and as an impressively shameless pander to patient fans ("I know your image of me is what I hope to be/I've treated you unkindly but darling can't you see/There's no one more important to me").

The best tracks are, as always, Sunday morning roof-raisers like "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," which Houston dispatches with the proficiency, if not necessarily the passion, of the gospel singer she once was. Gone are the over-the-top vocal runs -- victims, perhaps, of age and abuse. Studio wizardry makes the full extent of the damage tough to survey, but her lower register sounds blown out completely.

The title track, which might as well be called "I Am a Generic Whitney Houston Song About Overcoming Adversity," is nevertheless a fine, familiar, drama-bringing ballad that provides a refresher course in Whitney 101. It was written by, of all people, the similarly embattled R. Kelly, who also wrote the aforementioned "Salute," a snappy electro-piano track that echoes Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable." Hopefully Kelly, who has famously faced his own legal and career troubles, is setting aside equally affecting songs about the virtues of humility and self-reliance for his own inevitable, mea culpa comeback disc. One day soon, he's going to need them.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "I Look to You," "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," "Nothin' but Love"

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