On one hearing, it's easy to dismiss Whitney Houston's new album as overcalculated, hollowed-out pop product, so suffocated by professionalism that only the faintest pulse of soul remains. But after several listens, it's nearly impossible to dislodge Whitney from your brain. Like Houston's debut, this is a mess of an album that succeeds in spite of itself.
But if Whitney works — and its entry at Number One on Billboard's pop LP chart is a strong indication that this album could surpass its predecessor's multi-platinum sales and cut-by-cut chart accomplishments — it's not because it makes dramatic improvements on the first LP's winning formula or gives Houston a chance to attack a broader, more adventurous range of material. Instead, the formula is more rigorously locked in than before, and the range so tightly circumscribed that Houston's potential seems to have shrunk rather than expanded. Executive producer (and Arista president) Clive Davis may have been determined to make this follow-up a norisk venture, a multimillion-dollar sure thing, but the result is smug, repressive and ridiculously safe. Instead of using Houston's initial triumph as a springboard to more challenging work, Davis and his team of producers have turned it into a luxury prison — an airless, inflexible but expensively appointed cell designed to keep out new ideas.
At its most stubborn and unimaginative, this approach results in new material that is barely distinguishable from Houston's old hits. "I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)," Whitney's first single release, was written by the same team (George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam) and "loved, produced and arranged" (as the credits have it) by the same producer (the ever-competent, never-surprising Narada Michael Walden) that scored with "How Will I Know." Not taking any chances, the songwriters have simply come up with a clever anagram of their original hit, and Walden has glossed it over in an identically perky style. The strategy is not so different from that behind Hollywood's blockbuster sequels: this is How Will I Know II. Houston's first new material in two years was bound to get quick pickup, but "I Wanna Dance" beat her own previous record for a rapid rise up the charts, leaping into Billboard's Top Ten in just four weeks and hitting Number One soon after. In showbiz, at least, familiarity does not breed contempt.
But rewarding the strategy means settling for more of the same, which is virtually all Whitney has to offer. Although mixmaster-producer Jellybean Benitez joins the ranks, the rest of the producers on Whitney are also contributors to the previous album: Kashif, Michael Masser and Walden, who checks in with seven of the eleven cuts. Masser reprises the show-tune schmaltz of "The Greatest Love of All" in his even cornier "Didn't We Almost Have It All." Kashif, reduced to one track, shrugs off the lovely but limp "Where You Are." Jellybean clicks neatly with "Love Will Save the Day," the only song to even remotely acknowledge the problems of the world at large and the most vivaciously percussive track on the record.
Walden covers all these bases, out-schlocking Masser with "I Know Him So Well" — a genuine if frankly derivative show tune (from Tim Rice's Chess) treated here with deadly reverence — and out-hopping Kashif (but not Jellybean) with "Love Is a Contact Sport," "So Emotional" and "I Wanna Dance." In the main, Walden's work is neo-conservative pop, perfect fodder for adult contemporary radio, where contemporary is an assurance that nothing disturbingly novel will be heard. Like so much of Richard Perry's material for the Pointer Sisters, Walden's output has a hip veneer and a solidly conventional core. Working comfortably within Whitney's limited parameters, he has no trouble steering clear of innovation and just honing his hooks. On two cuts — Sam Dees's sparkling, quiet-stormy ballad "Just the Lonely Talking Again" and a right-on-target Isley Brothers cover, "For the Love of You" — Walden's delicate polish is quite irresistible. But even in his most obvious and manipulative productions, the hooks dig in before long. Like Houston's debut, this is an album full of songs you detest one day and find yourself singing along with the next.
Clive Davis and his team must be doing something right, but if Whitney gets under your skin, it's largely due to Houston's insidious charm. There are plenty of young singers out there with more passion, guts, subtlety, street smarts and sass (listen to recent albums by Regina Belle, Jody Watley, Jocelyn Brown, LaLa, Nona Hendryx, Vesta Williams, Tawatha and Lisa Lisa), but Whitney is like the pop pros of an earlier generation. Her work is cool, authoritative, no-nonsense and delivered with a facility that is almost off-putting. If it's sometimes hard to locate an emotional heart in Houston's songs, the sheer talent is obvious. Still, the narrow channel through which this talent has been directed is frustrating. Turning Whitney Houston into a crossover queen, a yuppie icon, might satisfy the record biz, but it leaves a much richer and more complex promise unfulfilled.