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