It looked like the '90s. It felt like the '90s. It even sort of smelled like the rich and thriving '90s. And for one brief evening it was, as J/RCA Records celebrated the return of their crown jewel, Whitney Houston. And they did it in style. At a lavish, star-studded listening event legendary record man Clive Davis, Chief Creative Officer of Sony Entertainment Worldwide presented nine tracks from Houston's new album, I Look To You, to a crowd of nearly 500 at the Allen Room in midtown Manhattan's Time Warner Center.
It has been seven years since Houston released a studio album, 2002's Just Whitney. In that time she's faced some daunting personal struggles, including allegations about drug use, some shockingly candid appearances on her then-husband's Bravo reality show, Being Bobby Brown, and a 2007 divorce from Brown. Rumors have also been floated that her historically powerful singing voice has begun to fade. Hearing I Look To You, a modern-sounding and crisply produced comeback, should prove any doubters wrong. Whitney's voice is as soaring and capable of gliding power as it was 25 years ago when Davis first began work with the singer.
Standing behind a podium on a stage decorated only with a chair to sit in as the music played, Davis discussed I Look To You's long journey. "We've been working for three years," he said. "You have to wait for great songs to show up. I understand this is an artificial setting. But this is what we've done."
The night's first song was also its feistiest. Written and produced by new industry power couple Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, "Million Dollar Bill" is a clattering, uptempo hip-hop-inspired number. It may be the fastest ever for Houston, who keeps up nicely, even if it occasionally sounds like the balladeer is doing some stretching. The song set off a frenzy in the hall, sending Martha Stewart, Houston's cousin Dionne Warwick, Oprah pal Gayle King, and Keys into ecstatic dance. It received a standing ovation. It also set the tone for much of the album.
With contributions from Akon (the tropical "Like I Never Left," which leaked last year), Norwegian R&B hitmakers Stargate ("Call You Tonight") and two tracks from R. Kelly (the chippy kiss-off "Salute" and the steely title track produced by Tricky Stewart and Harvey Mason Jr.) Houston seems to be aiming for a younger audience and the radio. Though her pipes are always up front — seven of the nine songs have booming vocal bridges — it's rhythm that drives the album. One exception is the recently leaked "I Didn't Know My Own Strength." Written by Diane Warren and produced by David Foster, it is a classic Houston ballad: tenacious, swelling, a bit corny.
One thing that nearly every song has in common is theme. The writers on the album — Johnta Austin, Kelly, Warren — watched Houston's struggles in recent years and have written songs that reflect a sense of perseverance and redemption. "I want you to love me like I never left," she sings, winking at her fans.
Whitney finally appeared after the conclusion of the last song, a house-y cover of Leon Russell's "A Song For You." Striding onto the stage in a shimmering vinyl dress, Houston was gracious and beaming, thanking everyone and blowing kisses before talking about Davis and her mother Cissy's encouragement to restart her career. She was brief. But it was unmistakable: Whitney is back.