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Whitney Houston, Pushing Back Into Pop

Houston sang two numbers from her new album, <em>I Look To You,</em> during her four-song mini-concert appearance on ABC's <em>Good Morning America</em> on September 1.
Larry Busacca
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Houston sang two numbers from her new album, I Look To You, during her four-song mini-concert appearance on ABC's Good Morning America on September 1.

Whitney Houston's new album, I Look To You, her first new release since 2002, features work from a variety of songwriters and producers, including R Kelly, Diane Warren and David Foster. I've already read one review of the album that refers to it as "gorgeous," and another that calls it "a return to her classic sound." I disagree. One reason I like this collection of songs so much is that Houston's voice is rougher and more open-throated than it's been since she became a star. And the songs themselves are, in general, less bombastic, more precise and detailed, than her biggest hits.

The disco rhythm of "Million Dollar Bill" doesn't come off as nostalgic or retro or out-of-touch: It quickly establishes itself as a solid R&B background to Houston's singing about a man who makes her feel good. Co-written by Alicia Keys, it's the lead-off cut on I Look To You, and sets the collection's prevailing tone: energetic and positive without being sappy or frantic. Working with her long-time boss and collaborator, Clive Davis, Houston has done something very smart here: She doesn't update her sound with hip-hop beats or street slang. Instead, she stands her ground and retains her own voice, both literally and metaphorically.

Of course, Houston cannot ultimately resist including a few blow-the-roof-off ballads. She waits a while to get around to it, though, until the album's seventh cut. The song is called "I Didn't Know My Own Strength." It's about, you know, "getting through the pain," "holding my head up high" and finding "light out of the dark." It's big, it's florid, but it doesn't tip over-the-top. Its stately piano figures and Houston's vocal restraint keep the song rooted in a way some of her mega-hits were not.

Houston also pulls off something on this album I didn't think I'd want to hear: another version of the Leon Russell oldie "A Song For You." For one thing, she's got the authority to make palatable the song's premise, a big star professing to act like a vulnerable, "normal" person. She and her producers also do a clever thing after that intro — about 90 seconds in, the song bursts into a disco arrangement that gives the chorus an energy that freshens and revitalizes its sentiments.

It's odd to think that Whitney Houston, who's done more than any other contemporary singer to enshrine the "diva" style of pop singing, is currently probably known to young audiences more for her tabloid troubles with drugs and her ex-husband Bobby Brown than for her performances: She's been Beyonce'ed and Mariah'ed to the margins of pop. This album is her way of getting back in the game, and Houston does it with great skill, shrewdness and a paradox: powerhouse humility.

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Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.