Whitney Houston indulges few quirks, follows few agendas. When, after much planning, she sprang her mega-successful 1985 debut, Whitney Houston, on the world, Houston’s Manhattan-soul stylings, dance-pop workouts and Dior ballads seemed as poised for mass favor as the tunes of Michael Jackson or Madonna. The difference was that this silver-toned child of roaring gospel and streamlined pop — she’s Cissy Houston’s daughter, Dionne Warwick’s cousin — had no covert ambitions to redirect America’s cultural appetites. She may have in 1982, when she recorded, auspiciously, with Bill Laswell and Material, who always had one hell of an agenda. But that was before she signed with Clive Davis and Arista and determined to become a sovereign pop singer — and to go septuple platinum.
What Houston has always possessed in abundance is a voice, the strongest of pop advantages. I’m Your Baby Tonight — Houston’s third, best and most integrated album — amounts to a case study in how much she can get out of her luscious and straightforward vocal gifts within a dancepop framework. All six producers and recording teams on I’m Your Baby Tonight defer to her singing. With Narada Michael Walden — whose cheesy brass synths on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” from 1987, couldn’t stop that explosive single from going to Number One — Houston refines two of her signature styles: state-of-the-art dance pop and baroque ballads. On “Lover for Life,” a delicious handling of a questionable metaphor about being “sentenced” to domestic bliss, and “I Belong to You,” which acts out its claim in a penthouse bedroom, Walden uncorks high-end grooves accented by pinballing counterrhythms. And Houston and Walden control “All the Man That I Need,” an outsize ballad about poverty and damaged self-regard, so expertly that the song, with its effective whiff of Spanish guitar, stages undeniable pop drama.
Producers L.A. Reid and BabyFace, who make music with Houston on four songs, take a more youthful tack. Their sharp recastings of Seventies black pop and funk bop set against thumping Eighties dance rhythms are lean, mean and virtually invisible compared with Walden’s arrangements. When Houston’s compressed yet still testifying vocal zigzags through the title hit single, stipulates in no uncertain terms that “My Name Is Not Susan” or executes the fast kiss-off in “Anymore,” it is because L.A. and BabyFace have led her into new, less formal territory, where she sheds her gowns, swings and sounds confident, rhythmically challenged and very much at home. Conversely, when L.A. and BabyFace follow her into ballad-land on the despondent “Miracle,” Houston’s own moods call the shots more clearly. Together, Houston and L.A. and BabyFace seem like a natural, well-balanced, if not yet completely killer, team.
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Houston sings “Who Do You Love,” a fluffy Luther Vandross production, on I’m Your Baby Tonight, plus an ultraromantic song that celebrates the moments “After We Make Love.” Produced by Michael Masser, the latter tune’s effects-happy glow makes some sense, but Houston belts out the lyrics as though she’s recording the national anthem of Venus. And with Rickey Minor, Houston herself produces “I’m Knockin’,” a fine piano-led jaunt through a page in the diary of a modern-day career girl; relatively rough and tumble, it could almost be titled “I’m Rockin’.”
Still, the key to the kind of music Houston sings on I’m Your Baby Tonight — the black-and-white, funk-and-dance-driven pop that is the soundtrack of this cultural moment — is “We Didn’t Know,” Houston’s duet with producer Stevie Wonder. Wonder, who practically invented the keyboard-based pop that Houston and her fans hear as natural and contemporary, understands Houston totally. He knows what she likes about the expressive properties of ballads, about the passion of rock, about the well-regulated technological zing of dance music. So, as he’s done before in his own music and with other singers, he puts all of this — the barreling rhythm tracks, the soaring choruses, the personable background voices — at the service of “We Didn’t Know,” which is about when “innocent friends/Turn serious lovers.” Chances are — and with any luck — this emotionally engaged song on Whitney Houston’s consistent and resourceful album will affect the music she sings for the rest of her life. Houston may already be a remote kind of classic, but if her work with L.A. and BabyFace and Stevie Wonder provides any true indication, don’t be surprised if she loosens up even more, moves even closer.