Seven years is an eternity in popular music, and the woman known as "the Voice" seems to have spent much of that time in a very dark place.
For the current generation of pop and R&B fans, Whitney Houston is best known for the troubled home life she shared with the world on the reality television show, "Being Bobby Brown." She finally divorced Brown in 2007, but not before making a series of tawdry headlines, from a bust in Hawaii when authorities found pot in her luggage, to an abruptly canceled appearance at the Academy Awards, to rumors that her spectacular vocal instrument had been damaged beyond repair by substance abuse.
Ask most kids today if they're aware of Houston's musical accomplishments--the record-breaking string of multi-platinum hits, including the 1993 cover of "I Will Always Love You," one of the biggest singles of all time--and they'll probably say, "Hell to the no!" They're more likely to react to a Monica Lewinsky joke.
The personal turmoil isn't Houston's biggest comeback challenge, however; everyone loves a good redemption story. The real hurdle is that 25 years after musical impresario Clive Davis took a girl from Newark, N.J. and struck gold with the formula of soaring, virtuosic vocals delivered over soft, cushy, melodramatic pillows of smoother-than-smooth backing tracks, the prime vehicle for peddling such sounds has long since shifted to the "American Idol" universe.
It's probably a given that older fans who haven't had a Whitney fix since the disappointing "Just Whitney" in 2002 will embrace her long-awaited sixth album "I Look to You," which arrives in stores on Tuesday [Aug. 31]. But for Houston to reclaim her diva crown and superstar status, she also needs to appeal to those younger listeners.
To this end, executive producer Davis recruited some of the biggest names in hip-hop and R&B to handle the actual knob-twirling and songwriting--Swizz Beatz, R. Kelly, Alicia Keys, Akon, Stargate, Diane Warren and David Foster included--at a cost that no doubt tops the annual expenditures of many small nations. Then he tinkered with it all for more nearly two years: The disc initially was set for release in late 2007.
The first thing that strikes you when listening to "I Look to You" is that despite all of those stylistically diverse egos in the kitchen, "I Look to You" doesn't sound overcooked at all: The sound throughout is clean, modern, unfettered and consistently designed to keep the focus on Houston's singing, whether it's on the moderately bouncing club tracks (which lean toward old-school house rather than modern electro) or the requisite ballads (Kelly in particular pairs things down to little more than a grand piano and vocals on the two tracks he helms). The only time things stray from this goal is during a pointless duet with Akon on "Like I Never Left."
The second thing that hits you is that Houston's singing is still incredibly powerful--a sublime mix of gospel purity, pop prissiness and bedroom purr. True, there are no spectacular key changes and show-stopping leaps to her highest register; these days, when Houston stretches for those impossible notes, she does it much more gingerly. But the lack of octave-spanning trilling actually is an improvement in my book, which always favors emotional expression over rote displays of technical ability.
As for the emotions Houston is expressing, the theme of weathering hard times and coming out the better for them runs through all 11 tracks, including the cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You." (He's no Dolly Parton, but it's still a lovely tune in Houston's hands). As the singer said at one of her high-profile listening parties, "There are times in life when we go through certain situations--some not so good. You have to reach for a higher strength, you have to reach deep inside yourself, spend time with yourself to make some corrections that go beyond your own understanding and lean on a higher understanding."
Oprah viewers will of course swoon over the sounds and thoughts expressed in tracks such as the Kelly-helmed "Salute" ("So don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years/Through all of the drama and the pain and all of the tears/It's time to stop this roller coaster so that I can get off/And start moving mountains, swimming seas, and climbing over") and the Warren/Foster power ballad "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" ("I crashed down and I tumbled/But I did not crumble/I got through all the pain/I didn't know my own strength/Survived my darkest hour/My faith kept me alive/I picked myself back up/Hold my head up high").
But my bet is that the "American Idol" crowd will connect with many of these tracks, too: They may not have struggled with divorce and rehab, but Houston's just-hang-on histrionics speak just as movingly to that unrequited sophomore crush, and heartbreak is heartbreak, after all. Certainly anyone in need of tear-jerking ballads and uplifting groovers could do much worse on the current pop scene, and when our heroine croons, "I want you to love me like I never left," she gives us plenty of reasons to heed her call.