On the cover of her much-anticipated comeback album, “I Look to You”, Whitney Houston is regal again. Her gaze is strong and steady. Her smile is almost a smirk, as if to say, “Ha! You thought I wouldn’t make it back.”
For a while there, it seemed as if Houston, one of the most successful and most lauded recording stars of all-time, was done. But for the last two months or so, the notoriously haughty pop diva has been in the throes of resuscitating her career, which flat-lined soon after 1998’s “My Love Is Your Love”.
As the shock of Michael Jackson’s sad and sudden death wears off and as mainstream pop continues to deliver blah hit after blah hit, perhaps the time couldn’t be better for a mighty comeback from one of the most celebrated and overrated pop stars of the last 30 years.
Executive produced by Houston’s longtime mentor Clive Davis, “I Look to You” finally hit stores Aug. 31 after several delays. It’s the performer’s first album since 2002’s completely forgettable “Just Whitney”. To help promote the CD, Houston is set to sit down with Oprah Winfrey for her first interview in seven years.
Surely you remember the last one? The tense Diane Sawyer sit-down in which Houston
infamously declared that “crack is whack” in a dry, raspy voice. Her chat with Oprah airs on September 14 when the talk show icon kicks off her new season.
There will be much to discuss between the two, as Houston’s personal life in the last decade has been packed with drama. A tempestuous marriage to her “R&B king” Bobby Brown, alleged drug abuse, a flop album, an embarrassing reality show in which an unlikable Houston appeared alongside her hopelessly ghetto and washed-up husband, intense rehab and a messy divorce.
In all that time, pop music, where Houston was once an inescapable force, has morphed into something completely different. Filtered voices and heavy-handed production, all overlaid with store-bought swagger, have long supplanted the grand, soul-lite balladry that made Houston an international pop phenomenon from the mid ‘80s to the early ‘90s.
Sure, her imprint is still on urban-pop. Houston’s swooping notes and overcooked melodic embellishments are still heard in the hits of Mariah Carey, Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson, just to name a few. But does the 46-year-old former pop princess fit in today’s fragmented climate where the likes of Keri Hilton and Rihanna rule the airwaves?
Not at all.
Houston’s machine had the good sense not to repackage her as a wannabe urban hottie. As the cover to her new album suggests and as the new music reveals, Houston is still somewhat aloof. Her voice, though not as crystalline as it was years ago, remains a
marvel even if she’s still underserved by overly calculated material.
Perhaps Houston will never record anything as effortlessly sexy as “You Give Good Love” or as brightly effervescent as “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” Her performance of the new songs doesn’t show much artistic evolution or depth. But are we really expecting that from Whitney Houston? The Newark diva is still standing despite 10 years of mess. And she’s back just to let us know that.