Whitney Houston's 'I Look to You': Instant track-by-track thoughts
Just in time for Grammy consideration, and a week earlier than expected, Whitney Houston’s comeback effort, “I Look to You,” has made its way to the Web as an official stream. The album will officially be available on Aug. 31.
Times pop music chief Ann Powers will provide a thorough analysis of the effort in the coming days, but Pop & Hiss is getting the conversation started now. Here’s some insta-track-by-track thoughts. All of the thoughts below were written based solely on one listen. Pausing, however, was allowed.1. “Million Dollar Bill.” This is a refreshing album opener, as it’s right in Houston’s comfort zone. There was the fear that Houston might try to belt one right out of the park from the start, what with Alicia Keys listed as the songwriter, and Swizz Beatz, whose credits include everyone from Beyoncé to Jay-Z, leading the production credits. That’s not the case, as it’s a swift and easy retro R&B cut. In fact, Houston returns with an album opener that feels lifted direct from the '70s. That’s not an accident, as it features a sample of Loleatta Holloway’s mid-'70s cut “We’re Getting Stronger (The Longer We Stay Together).” Here’s a handy-dandy comparison.
2. “Nothin’ But Love.” Houston’s sound gets a little more modernized here, courtesy of Timbaland associate Nathaniel “Danja” Hills. It’s upbeat, and it starts as a tale of survival and strength, with Houston generically referencing “all the things that I’ve been through” in the song’s opening moments, and offering a casual brush-off to the “haters” as the song builds to the chorus. But don’t go looking for personal details, as the song fits in nicely with the '80s synth revival currently on pop radio, and is a love letter to family bonds. A nice touch, though, is the sparse second verse, framing a wiser, raspier-sounding Houston than we’re used to.
4. “I Look to You.” We’ve heard and discussed this one before, and it’s not any more impressive on the album. The production is downright cheesy, with sparkling, futuristic effects twinkling in the background throughout the song’s full four-plus minutes. This is an end-credits song.5. “Like I Never Left.” Akon marks his territory, announcing his production hand in the song’s opening moments. He would have been better to keep his mouth shut, as his studio-enhanced vocals laden this comeback tale with clichés. Akon doesn’t really sound the lover, more the Whitney fan, cheerleading her return.
6. “A Song for You.” The classic Leon Russell tune, perhaps best known in its Donny Hathaway cover, and now an “American Idol” audition staple. Give Houston, who has tackled the song before, credit for playing with the arrangement, turning it into an upbeat pop number. But this version isn’t going to bring anyone to tears, and I’m not sure it’s going to bring anyone to the dance floor. It made me miss Houston’s earlier, shout-to-the-rafters rendition.7. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.” Another one we’ve heard before. Over time, this one has grown on me as a powerful statement of survival, while the title track isn’t something I need to hear again. It suffers again from the random electronic skittles in the background, but if Houston is no longer straining her vocals to the max, there’s something very resilient in the way the song builds, and she sounds sturdier here than on any other track.
8. “Worth It.” With “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” building to a show-stopping finale, “Worth It” doesn’t make an effort to maintain the momentum. Instead, we divert back to a hand-clap-laden ditty. Honestly, after the personal take of the last ballad – a should-have-been album closer – this is hitting me as filler.9. “For the Lovers.” Now it’s becoming more apparent why Arista / RCA teased with the ballads, as when Houston slides into Top-40 mode, the songs are loaded with so much production, they sometimes feel as if they could be sung just as successfully by any number of pop stars. That being said, this is the most forceful dance cut on the record, and it’s got club-hit written all over it. Compared to recent Mariah Carey and Madonna tracks we’ve heard, this is far a more aggressive, groovy and catchy tune.
10. “I Got You.” Akon returns with his second cut on the album, and it’s definitely a more interesting one than “Like I Never Left,” with its finger-picked strings and grand, synthesized orchestra. Houston’s vocals are more brawny than soaring these days, and the song’s brick heavy production is built to withstand them
11. “Salute.” R. Kelly also fares better on his second cut, although the backing singers are on equal ground as Houston here. But it’s a biting, angry send-off for the album, an acerbic wave goodbye to a lover, as well as any doubters. “Don’t call it comeback,” Houston forces out through gritted teeth. “I’ve been here for years – through all the drama and the pain.” While gossip hounds will want to parse the lyrics, the album could have used more of this – it’s a fiery, passionate Houston, and one ready to tackle, confront and conquer her long absence from the pop landscape.
Be sure to stay tuned to Pop & Hiss, as Powers will offer a deeper look at the album, and its place in the Whitney canon, in the coming days.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Associated Press