'I Look to You'
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Certain voices stand like monuments upon the landscape of 20th century pop, defining the architecture of their times, sheltering the dreams of millions and inspiring the climbing careers of countless imitators. Whitney Houston owns one of those voices.
When she was at her best, nothing could match her huge, clean, cool mezzo-soprano -- not Madonna's canny chirp, not Bono's stone church wail nor Bruce Springsteen's ramshackle growl. No, it was Houston who best embodied the feminine but gym-toned, black-inspired but aspirationally post-racial sound of global crossover pop. Like a Trump skyscraper, Houston the singer was as showily dominant as corporate capitalism itself.
Then, like many a glorious edifice, Houston's voice fell into disrepair. Drug abuse and a rocky marriage to New Jack jerk Bobby Brown made her a tabloid staple. More tragically (for listeners, at least), her excesses trashed her instrument, which age and normal wear and tear would have imperiled anyway.
The pain and, frankly, disgust that so many pop fans felt during Houston's decline were caused not so much by her personal distress as by her seemingly careless treatment of the national treasure that happened to reside within her.
"I Look to You," the singer's comeback after nearly a decade of ignominy, is a costly renovation overseen by her mentor, Clive Davis, and enacted by the best craftspeople money can buy, including the producers Akon, Stargate and Nate "Danja" Hills and the songwriters Diane Warren and Alicia Keys. It's not unsuccessful: This is a habitable set of songs. But there's a limit to what Houston can accomplish, and operating within limits becomes the album's overriding theme.
This happens beneath the music's surface, which balances inspirational balladry with bubblicious club pop, as Houston's music always has done. Houston's songwriters and producers provide her with top-notch tools; she wields them cautiously and almost humbly, never falling because she never reaches too high.
The best giant ballad is the Warren-penned, David Foster-produced "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," an exhibition of battle scars that's richer for the weary, injury-protecting quality of Houston's vocal. If she does earn the Grammy she's virtually been promised for a song from this set, it should be for this one.
R. Kelly's contributions -- the megachurchy title track and "Salute," a sort of rewrite of Rihanna's "Take a Bow" -- are less convincing, mostly because Houston can't muster the giant ego that's made similar songs golden for Kells himself.
On most of the album, platinum beats overshadow any vocal pyrotechnics, and Houston interacts with her backing tracks with the muscle memory of a dance-floor veteran. It's rewarding when she really settles into her rougher midlife tone, especially on the Danja-produced "Nothin' but Love," perhaps the most pugnacious thank-you note ever recorded.
When she aims for sweet, as in the hooky "Worth It," or spirited, as on the disco-fab climax of the Leon Russell cover "A Song for You," she gets there with effort.
But should we begrudge the fact that Whitney Houston now has to work at singing? It's all to her credit.
What's hard to give up is the dream of painless perfection that the young Houston represented, back in the yuppie era, when her voice sounded like the easy money that was flowing everywhere. Of course, that didn't turn out so well for anyone else, either.
Though "I Look to You" doesn't soar like the old days, it's fine to hear Houston working on her own recovery plan.