So the only question on my mind as I got ready to stream Whitney Houston's new album, "I Look to You" from her website was "Does she still have it?" My previous reviews of the first two leaked songs, the title track and "Million Dollar Bill," expressed my concern about her ability to still hit notes since on both tracks she often sounded hoarse and her phrasing seemed off kilter.
The good news is "I Look to You," out Aug. 31, is undeniably Whitney. She's instantly recognizable, if somewhat vocally diminished, on almost all the tracks. To her credit, for the most part, she picks songs that suit her instead of trying to compete with Lady GaGa or Katy Perry.
Many of the songs here serve as statements/testaments to Houston's staying power despite everything she's been through. She wants us to know (depending upon the tune) that she's a survivor, she's stronger than she thought, and that she forgives those who doubted her. But what is shocking is that these are the best songs that she, a slew of producers, and executive producer/mentor Clive Davis could find to express these sentiments after all these years. Most are fairly routine and far from memorable.
So... was "I Look to You" worth the seven-year wait? The answer is no, but I'm not sure that any album could hold up to that scrutiny and maybe that's not a fair test. Is it great to hear a seemingly healthy Houston again? Absolutely. And maybe that's the best we can hope for.
Below is a track-by-track review.
"Million Dollar Bill": A sassy slice of rhythmic pop that is reminiscent of the verve of "I'm Every Woman." Houston starts strong and there are some lovely parts where she's holding notes, but by and large, there is still none of the vocal pyrotechniques or powerhouse belting or even the snazzy phrasing that Houston displayed in her heyday. Alicia Keys co-wrote "Million Dollar Bill, " The song is a feel-good toe tapper about how a girl's fella makes her feel like a "Million Dollar Bill".... The song smartly samples "We're Getting Stronger," from disco diva Loleatta Holloway's 1976 self-titled album. That may be why the song sounds so retro.
"Nothin' But Love": An up-tempo lovefest to all who have supported Houston over the years and, equally important, a slap down to all the haters out there. Houston's got nothing but love, or more specifically, "nothin'" but love for you no matter what you might have said or done to her in the past because, well, that's just how she rolls now. The whole "shout-out" element is pretty hokey. She holds a note at the end that makes you wish the old Whitney could come out and play more often.
"Call You Tonight": Paper-thin, slight, upbeat song directed to a lover about picking up the phone to get caught up despite life's constant tugs on our time. Houston sounds fine, but the song is totally dispensable and unless she's going for the big bucks to license it for a Sprint commercial, this was a wasted slot. If this is the best you've got, Whitney, save your quarter and call someone else.
"I Look to You": After "Call You Tonight," this sounds like a masterpiece. The first single is a stripped-down ballad that we'd call a power ballad if there were any "power" behind it. Written by R. Kelly, the song is a testament to looking upward when troubles surround us. Houston has always testified about her strong religious faith so the subject matter rings true, especially given her turbulent past. We weren't such a fan of it the first several times we heard it, but its quiet elegance is slowly growing on us.
"Like I Never Left": Houston mixes it up with Akon on this, one of the album's few obvious singles. The production sounds straight out of the mid-'80s, but that's probably a plus to Houston's fans. Catchy and autotuned within an inch of its life in parts, "Like I Never Left" is a sexy, mid-tempo ode to reuniting with a former lover. Again, Houston hits just enough high notes to remind us of what we're missing.
"A Song for You": This gorgeous classic, written by Leon Russell, and was made famous over the years by folks like Luther Vandross, Ray Charles, the Carpenters, Donna Summer and, yes, even Houston-a version appears on 1991's "Welcome Home Heroes with Whitney Houston." Unlike that version, here Houston starts slow and then turns "A Song for You" into a disco anthem, straight out of 1978. Probably will work with her club fans, but a straight reading, especially after all she's been through since, could have been monumental.
"I Didn't Know My Own Strength": This Diane Warren ballad is the emotional center of the album and clearly the most autobiographical. "I was not built to break/I didn't know my own strength, "she sings. Like on the title track, Houston credits her faith for pulling her through her darkest hours. As the end of the song crescendos, Houston belts as much as she's able. She sounds good, but not great. In the days of yore, it would have been one of those moments when you'd hold your breath there was so much power coming at you.
"Worth It": Not really, Whitney. Another song that sacrifices any semblance of lyrical weight to a slow, insinuating beat. Sample line: "I know somebody's going to make love to this song tonight." Only if they accidentally left their CD player on. This song is about as sexy as a hangnail.
"For the Lovers": Odd in that the song before this talks about "for the lovers." I'm seriously wondering if the streaming titles on the website are wrong. Anyway, this is another dance-oriented track, whose only message is "Throw your hands up for the next three minutes... it's about the lovers." As crazy as it sounds, I felt like I should be listening to Rascal Flatts doing this song instead of Houston. Houston is pretty low in the mix here and, quite frankly; it could be anyone singing here.
"I Got You": Akon returns for this track, which is unlike anything else on the album. This is a battle horse of a song with a heavy, dense, slow rhythm that gives it a certain gravitas. In concert, it demands a choir. On record, it stands out as one of the most heartfelt and certainly the most interesting track on the album. We have a feeling as many people will hate this tune about parting from a lover as love it.
"Salute": Houston, reunited with R. Kelly, sends us on her way with the reminder, just in case we've forgotten, she's a survivor. But this time, she's not so forgiving as she was on "Nothin' But Love." This time, she's done listening to you and your crazy talk on this mid-tempo ballad. "I took the fall, but I stand tall." She also admonishes us "Don't call it a comeback."
Well, we won't because we're not sure this will be the comeback that we were all hoping for. It's an album of hits and misses. Plus, as good as Houston sounds in parts, she never soars to the rafters and leaves us incredulous that someone could sing like that. Maybe, just maybe, this is just the start of the second half of Houston's career and not her swan song.