It seems like decades ago Whitney Houston used to be the biggest thing in contemporary pop. A true balladeer, scoring hit after hit, hitting note after note, winning seven Grammys and earning 26 nominations, becoming among the most awarded women in the world and selling 140 million records along the way. Ever since her last good album, My Love is Your Love (1998) Houston never quite captured her mojo back, going through a series of public downfalls, all down to drug problems and personal endeavors--a 15 year marriage to R&B singer, Bobby Brown which was annulled in 2007, which essentially solidified as kicking post for tabloids around he world. The poor reception of her last album, Just Whitney (2002) capitalized on the decadence of Houston's career--it resulted in being Houston's weakest album both in quality and commercially.
Fast forward seven years and we have newly refined Whitney, looking healthier and stunning like she use to in her prime and leaving her demons behind her, but can the music stand up to the recovery? I Look to You, is definitely a return to prominence, Whitney is sounding the best she has in years--which is the way it should be--production and star studded line up of producers aside, Whitney's voice is the driving force behind the whole piece. Providing a winning combination of melodic old school R&B, catchy uptempo dance-pop, groovy mid-tempo's and only a couple ballads and limited to a harsh 11 tracks, there really is no room for filler.
Opening number and lead single "Million Dollar Bill" is a nicely crafted '70s influenced number, also with obvious hip-hop influences; beginning with a subdued, '70s styled strumming of the guitar--slowly advancing into accompanying hand claps and Houston's rejoyceful opening notes. Houston swaggers it out on the verses before ascending into a breezy, catchy chorus--in which Houston's vocal continue shine through as she proudly exclaims: "If he makes you feel like a million-dollar bill, say, 'Oh, oh." It's written by R&B singer, Alicia Keys and produced by Kasseem "Swizz Beatz" Dean, a triumphant combination of talent--both Keys and Dean's work on Keys' own album, As I Am, were fantastic.
Next up is the fairly more contemporary, Danja produced "Nothin' But Love" which begins with modern, electronic synth lines, before busting into a more unobtrusive ambiance. It doesn't show off Houston pipes, but with an attempt to modern it up, I don't think it's suppose to. Contemporary R&B fronted "Call You Tonight" is fine mid-tempo--I wouldn't call it a ballad--backed admirably with tamborines, a recurring click and clap venture and layered strings. Houston sounds awesome on here, the song doesn't call for any "I Will Always Love You" notes, but with Whitney can't help up but add a little agglomeration of notes at the end. Upon initial listens, I thought this was produced by Ne-Yo, as it actively resembles the general sound of of his ballads, like "Go on Girl." Infact this is produced by Norwegian duo Stargate, who've produced tracks for Beyonce ("Broken Hearted Girl" and "Ave Maria") Jennifer Hudson ("Spotlight").
The first piano ballad of the album is the title track "I Look to You," written by R. Kelly, sets up the perfect leeway for Houston to show off her incredible range. "Like I Never Left" has a tasteful R&B arrangement produced by Akon, fronted by quiet flutes and persisted by hand claps, bells and tambourine sounds. It sounds so smooth, even with Houston's ablibbing towards the end, there's still a sense of subtlety. Following is a cover of Leon Russell's 1970 single "A Song for You," the second production by Stargate, which so far has been the song I've listened to the most--It's nicely so crafted, I haven't heard the original so I don't know if this how it's always been. It starts out a piano ballad, as Houston vocalizes over the top, before lifting up into a heavenly melodic uptempo, dance-pop production, pounding with layers of synth, handclaps but with still a dramatic piano keys running through. It's an awesome track.
The ballad "I Didn't Know My Own Strength" is another stunning vocal performance for Houston. Singing with considerable control and passion. There aren't too many runs in the song, Houston gives a compelling performance, but nothing too calculated. I love the dramatic build up in the bridge, but when the last chorus arrives--the song beings to thin out, despite attempting to go for that big finish with the piano, drums and whatnot. I think it needed a choir instead of an isolated Houston.
The last couple tracks, unfortunately aren't as good as the ones before, the second half is definitely weaker than the first--but that's not to say the last couple tracks are lackluster, I just don't like them as much. "Worth It" is a silky mid-tempo, backed smoothly with a chastened bassline, with moments of synth here and there. I don't think it's anything that preeminent, but it does attempt to go for a big finish, before it fades out at the end. "For the Lovers" kicks up a funky '70s bassline and the Akon produced "I Got You" is backed nicely by Spanish guitar, all the the dramatic atmosphere is more the centerpiece of the song. Closing the album is the piano key and bass backed "Salute" although it sounds completely different, the lyrics are more in the same vein as Mariah Carey's "Through the Rain." It's a great closing to the album. I especially like the lyric: "Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years."
There wasn't any doubting that during Whitney's time of struggle that she still had the power to return to prominence with a solid album--that was relavent to this age in music, but not so much that found Houston dumbing it down a bit. Time will tell wether I Look to You indeed Whitney's, The Emancipation of Mimi, at this point it doesn't look like it--as it hasn't spawned any hits as of yet, but I think there's plenty of time for that. I Look to You, is a solid album--a clear sign that Houston as indeed returned--even though she sings: "I've been here for years."
Best: Million Dollar Bill, A Song for You, I Look to You, I Didn't Know My Own Strength, Call You Tonight, Nothin' But Love, Like I Never Left, Salute