CD Review: Whitney Houston’s “I Look To You”

On “Salute,” the final song off her first album in seven years, once-reigning pop diva Whitney Houston calls up LL Cool J’s classic line to clarify her status: “Don’t call it a comeback,” she sings. “I’ve been here for years.”

Quotable rap lines aside, though, this is absolutely a comeback – and for those more interested in Houston’s vocal exploits than her tabloid-worthy adventures, one that’s long overdue.

For most of this decade, Houston has been on the career derailment program: The staggering tally of awards and No. 1 hits stopped coming, the seemingly infallible voice fell silent – for musical purposes anyway – and the carefully constructed good girl image crumbled amidst a whirlwhind of drug allegations and marital troubles with ex-hubby and hometown r and b product Bobby Brown.

So “I Look To You” is as much about artistry as damage control, putting Houston’s troubled past to bed and placing her squarely back on the music map. If it doesn’t wow, it at least succeeds in that endeavor.

Houston enlists top talent to helm her return to the spotlight and provide a cushion for her now-limited vocals. Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz co-produce the opening track “Million Dollar Bill” — no, it’s not Houston’s foray into rap music , but a disco-laced throwback reminiscent of A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie.”

Timbaland protégé Danja co-produces the stellar, club-ready “Nothin’ But Love,” which finds Houston taking the high road with haters, and reprises the club groove that begs to become Houston’s niche on the irresistible “For the Lovers.” The R. Kelly-penned “Salute” – a kiss-off to a no-longer-needed lover who shall remain nameless – doesn’t quite deliver on its lyrical swagger, but at least shows signs of life.

Norweigian production dynamos Stargate contribute their predictably subdued bounce on the budding romance tale “Call You Tonight” as well as the techno-inspired cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,” while Akon lends a hand on a pair of tracks, including the breezy duet “Like I Never Left.”

The ballad lineup boasts the Diane Warren drama rundown “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” for which Houston calls up all the angst she can muster. Which, compared to the Houston of yore, isn’t all that much.

In the end, Houston’s sixth album is as much about forward strides as limitations. While it unites a collection of power players to breathe new life into her career – and proves that Houston is still capable of having a career – many of the songs shun urgency and power in favor of safety.

No, Houston hasn’t reclaimed her throne…yet. For those who thought the end was near, consider this a new beginning. Download: “Nothin’ But Love.” (originally published in the Boston Herald, August 2009.)

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2 Comments on “CD Review: Whitney Houston’s “I Look To You”

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