If you are old enough to remember Whitney Houston’s meteoric rise to fame back in the mid 80’s you probably have been by her side ever since and its been quite the roller coaster ride. With the amazing highs and the jaw dropping lows Ms. Houston has managed to become the poster girl for both phonic perfection and the darkest pits of fame and fortune. The latter has provided her with an infamy that makes her musical return all the more dramatic. Well that return is upon us and if you were anticipating the woman who tore down Dolly Parton’s ode to the most poignant goodbye, you will be disappointed. However, what she has delivered is a solid album that makes use of her existing attributes in the best ways possible.
It’s obvious with a cursory listen that Whitney’s incredible edges have been rounded; those boundaries of the sonic spectrum she so magically pushed with her God given pipes. The skill that allowed her to effortlessly stuff her vocal strength into the smallest of breaks on up tempo songs and her ability to part instrumentation with her voice and lift an already beautiful ballad to unbelievable heights isn’t here. However, the middle ground that is I Look to You is still better than most offerings from our new millennium song birds.
The vibe is mature. Even with the Swizz produced, Keys written disco lead single “Million Dollar Bill,”we are still getting a compilation of mostly mid tempo songs perfect for wine, candle light and a few steps on the dance floor. The arrangement of the songs works around Whitney’s somewhat faded voice, providing more emotion through instrumentation than she once needed and helping her out in sections she could once rip a cappella. A perfect example is her cover of “A Song for You.” The Donny Hathaway standard starts with the famous piano scale and will definitely have the listener thinking they are about to get some signature Whitney, but she never blasts off. The song evolves into a disco beat that allows her to rest on the music. The first verse is pretty, but the disco half speaks to her inability to carry a ballad with minimal instrumentation.
However, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” one of only three ballads on the album, is absolutely beautiful. The lyrics are so perfectly personal as Whitney sings about losing hope and crashing but then learning she wasn’t built to break in the process. Her voice is more breathy than you will remember but that works on this song as the strings and piano provide a wonderfully arranged foundation for her cautious optimism.
“Nothing But Love” is one really good uptempo song on the album. It tackles the idea of putting the craziness behind and getting back to business while blowing a collective kiss to those who did her right and even those who did her wrong. She airs her voice out on this song a bit giving the listener an oppotunity to see what shes working with post drama.
Akon is featured on “Like I Never Left.” Whitney’s inflection through this song is good and its obvious Akon is really working to keep up with the songstress. He gets a full verse and chops it up with her on the bridge as well. This may be one of his best features. He also produced “I Got You.” The song is more music than voice and the background vocals chip in at critical times, still a nice addition.
“Salute” is one of two R. Kelly donations to the album and it finds Whitney hovering near the bottom of her vocal range which seems to be her comfort zone now. Her ease in her vocals works with the lyrics as she proclaims she’s a soldier and confidently tells “him” to walk on out the door. Then a new door opens as she bids farewell to an old edition and decides its time to call up the girls for a night out. This song will definitely have her female fans shaking their heads in agreement as they sing along to the lyrics “I’m feeling kinda better than you.”
There’s some filler on the compact (11 songs) release, but nothing that injures the album. The song writing is top notch and the production is pretty strong with not only R. Kelly, Swizz Beats, Alicia Keys and Akon lending their talents, but also Johnta Austin, Diane Warren and Ms. Houston adding to the mix. It’s very synthesized and may have benefited from more live instrumentation but all around the base is strong.
The bottom line? It’s a good effort. It’s well rounded and crafty. Of course Whitney isn’t going to belt them out like she used to, that’s a given. She’s still a force in the studio though and I Look to You is a fitting welcome for her newly developed sound.
Out of 5
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Photography courtesy of KAR Photography