Monday, August 17, 2009

What Is it About Whitney: Then & Now

Not until I heard Ms. Houston's energetic plea to "dance with somebody who loves me," did I know that I had the same yearning as a young boy. Though I came of age with Whitney Houston when she was burning brightly during her '90's peak, classics like the previously stated "I Wanna Dance (With Somebody Who Loves Me)" proved to be perennial. How does, and has, Ms. Houston maintained her musical magic? Despite a few melismatic moments in her songbook, it contains a bounty of classics that cross pop and soul. Fueled by a voice that is powerful and sensitive, her presence is immeasurably beautiful.

Her debut Whitney Houston (1984) rivaled Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982) in that it captured the attention of white and black music buyers equally, and continues to do so. The stirring "You Give Good Love" is a Houston benchmark. The school talent show staple, produced by Diana Ross stalwart Michael Masser, "Greatest Love of All" also lived on Houston's self-titled record. Refusing to be defined by its low key moments, Whitney Houston housed colorful excitement as "How Will I Know" testified.

The sophomore jinx didn't exist on the follow-up Whitney (1987),  its neon-gloss steppers ("So Emotional")  acted as windows to Houston's youth. The ache of "Just the Lonely Talking Again," originally by The Manhattans, received Quiet Storm airplay without being a commercial single. It shines as an unsung work in Houston's discography. Without warning, a sentiment that Houston had become too white identified, despite her unwavering black radio and retail support, crept up.

Shaken by the critique from her own people, her third studio outing pushed her black music edge to the front of her sound on I'm Your Baby Tonight (1990). The sleek knock of the title track, produced by Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and L.A. Reid, disclosed the protruding arrangements Houston adapted to on the album.

I'm Your Baby Tonight showed itself stronger on the quieter sides with "Lover for Life" and "Miracle." Beginning in the '90s, Houston transitioned into film like a second skin: The Bodyguard (1992), Waiting to Exhale (1995), and The Preacher's Wife (1998). Her soundtracks spun out all the consummate hits: "I Will Always Love You," "Queen of the Night," "Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)," "Why Does It Hurt So Bad," etc.

Broader musical maturity included the neo-soul massage of "My Love is Your Love," courtesy of Wyclef Jean. It was the single and title track to Houston's fourth opus, released in 1998. Still charting the terrain of modern R&B, Houston's record switched between her structured pop fare ("I Learned From the Best") and evocative material ("Oh Yes").  A customary hits package arrived in 2000, with the criminally ignored "Fine" hiding behind all of her hits and other new songs.

Unfortunately, it wasn't long after this that Houston's personal trials began overshadowing her career highs. Her fifth long player Just Whitney (2002) suffered under the weight of Houston's problems. In the chaos, excellent material like the pre-club lounge of "One of Those Days" (helmed by Kevin "Shek'spere" Briggs) weren't given the opportunity to connect to audiences.

In the ensuing years copycats, detractors, and cynics sneered that Whitney Houston was a relic from a period in music long departed. Thankfully, with the impending release of her sixth studio effort I Look to You, it seems that relic may just have the last laugh. The Swizz Beatz "Upside Down" flavored "Million Dollar Bill" measures perfectly against Houston's best uptempo work, the album itself promises some new and familiar nuggets too.

"Million Dollar Bill"
Directed By: Melina Matsoukas

Whitney Houston's return has everyone talking and if people are willing to listen, she might just have something to say with I Look to You. We can't know where the future will take Ms. Houston, but we can hope that it will be to new places and that we can come along for the ride.-QH

[Editor's Note: I Look to You releases domestically on 8/28/09. For more information on it and Whitney Houston, visit her official site here.-QH]