It takes a while — nearly 25 minutes — for the proverbial Big Whitney Houston Moment to arrive on I Look to You, the singer's sixth studio album. It's a doozy, though. "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" is a schmaltz-swaddled ballad about spiritual heartiness and succeeding against the odds, full of gusty string-orchestra crescendos and gospel piano chords. Here is the Houston you know: the gale-force balladeer whose megahits like "Greatest Love of All" combined vocal pyrotechnics, self-help bromides and a distinctly black-female perspective to create a new kind of secular gospel music. Close your eyes, open your ears, and you're back in 1992.
The thing is, it's 2009, and I Look to You is Houston's first album in seven years. There is a whole Beyoncé generation that knows Houston not as a vocal virtuoso with a multi-octave range but as a tabloid fixture whose dissolution has been unfolding in public for years now. I Look to You has been billed as Houston's comeback, and it's not much of a stretch to read "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" as the album's autobiographical centerpiece. "I crashed down and I tumbled/But I did not crumble," Houston sings.
But, interestingly, this klieg-lit moment is the exception on the new album. I Look to You spends little time looking back. It is a modern soul record, a collection of sleek, oftenspunky love songs that aim at something more immediate and tangible than nostalgia or catharsis: Houston wants back in the diva stakes.
The mood is set by the lead track, "Million Dollar Bill." Co-written by Alicia Keys, it's a breezy ode to newfound love, with rubbery, high-riding bass, discofiedstrings and a lyric as buoyant as the beat. A cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" begins as ameditative piano ballad, but at the 1:30 mark the clouds part, and a sunny Eurodisco beatpours through. Even the songs with slower tempos find Houston in a sweetly sexy frame of mind, embracing her role as a singer of utilitarian babymakin' anthems. "I know somebody's gonna make love to this song tonight," she coos in the lush "Worth It."
At 46, Houston is not the singer she once was. Time and hard living haveshaved some notes off that amazing range; the clear, bright voice that dominated radio has given way to a huskier tone — less powerful but more sultry. Where her voice once commanded center stage, she wisely cedes some of the spotlight to her songwriter-producers. And she has hooked up with some ringers: Keys and Swizz Beatz (co-producers of "Million Dollar Bill"), R. Kelly, Danja, Akon, Tricky Stewart and Norwegian studio team Stargate, whose spry "Call You Tonight" is the album's most purely melodic moment. Wisely, these collaborators don't try to hip-hop-ify Houston. The beats are more insistent than in the past, but they're not trying to be single ladies; the songs have a swank adult-contemporary overlay that is distinctively Whitney.
"I want you to love me like I never left," she pleads in "Like I Never Left," a lulling duetwith Akon. Is she singing to a lover, or to her fans? Romance comes and goes, men can bereplaced. But smash-hit records, pop superstardom, the adulation of millions — that's thegreatest love of all.