Soul Tracks - Tracking the World's Greatest Soul Music

Whitney Houston - I Look to You (2009)

     

Whitney Houston - I Look to You (2009)
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Someone looking to Whitney Houston's "comeback" album I Look to You has to get one thing straight up front:  This is not the 22 year old Whitney belting out "You Give Good Love" or even the later version grooving on "I'm Every Woman."  At 45, with a decade of personal, physical and chemical dependency problems behind her, this is a different woman who comes to the microphone.  Her fans are grateful that this day has even come, as the media reports of the past few years drew questions of whether the onetime queen of the pop charts would even be alive in 2009, much less releasing a high profile album surrounded by some of the most successful writers and producers in the world. 

So it is almost unfair, if predictable, that critics will look at I Look to You in the context of the Ghosts of Whitney Past, and through that lens there is no way that the middle aged Whitney can match up. With a vocal rasp that became first apparent in her 2003 holiday album and which is noticeably more pronounced now, and a voice that is a bit lower and certainly weaker than at her peak, Whitney Houston is no longer a singular singer.  She is now a mere vocal mortal, requiring her to become more of a song stylist than was required earlier when she was, well, Whitney. But when, instead of being compared to Houston's magnificent past, this release is judged against the rest of the modern landscape of urban adult contemporary music, Whitney and I Look to You measure up just fine.

On the surface, I Look To You bears a strong resemblance to another recent album by an 80s stalwart: Just Go by Lionel Richie. Both rely on modern hitmakers Akon, Tricky Stewart and the Stargate gang to update a classic artist's sound and bridge listeners from multiple generations.  A big difference is that Richie -- once a top tier songwriter and producer -- made a conscious decision to hand over the creative car keys to the young designated drivers, and comes off as pandering for a younger audience.  Houston, on the other hand, comes from a different place.  She has never been a musical innovator, but has spent a career as a guest on her own albums, hiring the best writers and producers and swooping in to make everything (even the most formulaic dreck) sound glorious on the power of her one-of-a-kind-voice.  So it isn't a big change in 2009 for Stargate to take the place of a Michael Masser or a Narada Michael Walden in creating the foundation for I Look to You -- except that their margin for error is lower, as Whitney simply doesn't have the pipes anymore to hide a songwriter's flaws.  For that reason she and Clive Davis have worked nearly two years on I Look To You (including test marketing and leaking several songs over the course of that time), hoping to assure a consistent level of song quality that has evaded many of her prior discs. 

The results of all that work show in the final product. By most objective measures, I Look to You has to be considered a success. Whitney's name alone was enough to get talent interested in participating on the album, and she has assembled a solid set of songs that should appeal to her longtime fans.  She may also bring in new fans with the Alicia Keys-penned single, "Million Dollar Bill," a killer upbeat song that fits her perfectly and should be her biggest hit in more than a decade.  I could do without hearing Akon again for the next ten years (does this guy ever sleep?) but his contributions "Like I Never Left" and "I Got You" generally work, as does Stargate's quality midtempo "Call You Tonight."  R. Kelly is even a better fit, especially on the enjoyable, country-flavored title song, which sounds better in the overall context of the album than it did standing alone as a disc's first single.  The only truly disappointing moments on the disc are ultimately salvaged: The by-the-numbers Diane Warren ballad "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," is saved by touching lyrics that have a special poignancy when sung by the older, wiser Houston, and the Stargate-produced cover of Leon Russell's "A Song For You" starts out dreadfully but is rescued by the surprise, clever tempo change midway, transforming the traditional ballad into an electronic dance song.

We fans of Whitney Houston simply have to recalibrate our expectations.  As someone who thought her work on "I Have Nothing" was one of the finest performances I have ever heard, I Look to You simply confirms what I had suspected:  like Michael Jordan in his final stint with the Washington Wizards. the Whitney Houston I remember at her peak simply doesn't exist anymore.  But as a friend said, "just because something isn't perfect, doesn't mean that it doesn't have value."  And with I Look to You, the new Whitney Houston shows that she still has great musical value.  Putting aside the cynicism, there is a certain amount of grace that resulted in I Look to You even happening.  And there is real pleasure in saying that it is a worthwhile return for one of the seminal artists of our time. Recommended.

By Chris Rizik

 

Comments

Incredible review, Chris. I

Incredible review, Chris. I hope I have the same experience while listening to the project when it drops. I must say that after hearing the first batch of singles I also can hear a big difference from her present vocal deliveries compared to the reigning Whitney era ("You Give Good Love" to Waiting to Exhale). There's a total difference vocally, but with good songs and a careful eye provided by record veteran executive Clive "Hitmaker" Davis, we should still witness a major career comeback.

J. Matthew Cobb
Editor-At-Large, PRAYZEHYMNOnline.com

sure you're right to comment

sure you're right to comment upon how dignified the project is for whitney, there's no dispute about that or discreditation, but the problem for me is that the material (on this album) is all over the place and the reliance on bland, outdated rnb production and vocal stylings, is the album's major detriment. where's robin thicke or babyface when you need him? Clive couldn't make it happen but somehow Akon and Stargate could step in - misguided vision or lack of trying? The Johnta Austin demos of Call You Tonight and Worth It, while notable works for Austin himself and his serially delayed album, have been floating around since 2008. Even with Kells, Im not sure whether he was used wisely and strategically enough by Davis. Why not enlist A. Keys to oversee the entire songwriting and production of the album? Million Dollar Bill isn't necessary the type of track that is blaringly obvious, it takes a few listens for it to take off - one thing is glaringly obvious - it doesn't really fit into the context of the album.

one begs to wonder why she didn't go all pop out, ala Kelly Rowland When Love Takes Over - the emulation of Whitney is nonethless obvious. The album could have really done with more dance-orientated tracks - nothin but love and for the lovers stand as two of the best tracks on what otherwise was a decent album no doubt. but her rendition of a song for you turns disastrously wrong when it morphs itself into a techno-by-the-numbers. what were they thinking?

As for the ballads, I quite fond of the final track Salute with what sounds like Brandy lending background vocals. In saying that, the track is still fairly routine.

SHIMA SAYS SO I PRETTY MUCH

SHIMA SAYS SO

I PRETTY MUCH AGREE EXCEPT A DANCE VERSION OF 'A SONG FOR YOU' WAS A REALLY BAD IDEA. ODDLY ENOUGH ITS ONE OF HER BETTER VOCALS ON THE RECORD. SETTING EXPECTATIONS LOW MAKES THE RECORD MORE ENJOYABLE. R KELLY & DIANE WARREN DELIVERED FOR HER, I ALSO LIKE NOTHIN BUT LOVE & MILLION DOLLA BILL

After watching a video of

After watching a video of Whitney sing live overseas either last year or the year before, I had very low expectations. Because of that, I have been pleasantly surprised by the songs I've heard. I believe that she sounds fantastic!!! No, not the 22 year old Whitney, and although I loved that music and those vocals, I am ok with this CD. I didn't care for 'A Song For You', but it might be that I am VERY protective of Donny Hathaway songs (LOL like who am I?)

I can't wait to hear the entire project.

Honestly, I can't get enough

Honestly, I can't get enough of "Million Dollar Bill." The idea of merging Loleatta Holloway, Philly disco with a catchy melody from Alicia Keys is a good idea. But trust me, it's better when you hear it. I'm working on an original mix right now to expand the song beyond the depressing 3-minute play. Can't wait to finish it.

J. Matthew Cobb

Vintage_soulqueen I thought

Vintage_soulqueen
I thought this project was horrible. Whitney should had tapped Jam & Lewis, R. Kelly, and Ne-Yo to do a updated CD for her. This project sounded terrible. Then she killed A Song For You to it's horrible death. Sorry Whitney not your best girl.....

I agree with you "Million

I agree with you "Million Dollar Bill" is the B O M B
I didn't like it at first but it is growing on me and I can't get enough of it either.

My background is Journalism and I write an Entertainment E-Blast Newsletter,Dee Dee Da Da. I cover music, new trends in music/clothes, restaurants, travel in the LA area, The U S OF A etc.

Hit me @ perditabrown@aol.com for a copy. I would love to hear your mix of "Million Dollar Bill"

Dee Dee Da Da