Reviewed on this page:
Whitney Houston - Whitney -
I'm Your Baby Tonight -
My Love Is Your Love - Just Whitney - I Look To You
Everyone knows she's Dionne Warwick's cousin, but did you know that Whitney Houston is also
a recording artist? Oh, you knew that. Did you know she married New Jack bad boy Bobby
Brown? You knew that too. Well, did you know she's got a dynamic, powerful voice capable of great nuance, but usually
throws it away on prefab pop songs or tacky ballads? You knew that too? Hell, you might as well not even read the rest of
this page - I have nothing new to tell you.
I have compared Houston to her peers in our criminally underrated feature Diva Demolition Derby II: The 90s. There's an amazingly detailed fan site.
Whitney Houston (1985)
Clive Davis, then-chief of Arista, doesn't play around. Once he decided to make Houston his latest superstar discovery, he
fixed her up with top pop producers like Michael Masser, Narada
Michael Walden, and Kashif, all of whom contributed hit singles to this debut.
(Jermaine Jackson also produced three flaccid tracks, duetting on two of them, but let's just
ignore those, shall we?) Kashif produced his protegé LaLa's ballad "You Give Good Love." Walden contributed the
only real uptempo cut on the disc, the catchy if obvious "How Will I Know?" But the big winner was Masser, who cowrote
two huge hit ballads, "Greatest Love Of All" and "Saving All My Love For You" (with a Tom
Scott sax solo), plus the pleasant "All At Once" and the Teddy Pendergrass duet "Hold Me." The ballads are well
constructed and not overly sentimental, and Houston sings them well, with emotive power coupled with a subtlety that's
unusual in such a young performer. So it's not consistent enough to be great pop, but the hits still stand up after
fifteen years of radio saturation, which is no mean feat. The large cast of session musicians includes everybody from Nathan East and Ready Freddie Washington to
Ira Siegal and Ernie Watts.
Why change a winning game? Here's why. Kashif, Walden and Masser were all brought back for an encore, with Jackson nixed
in favor of Jellybean Benitez, who came up with the robotic dance track "Love Will Save The Day."
But don't be too quick to blame Benitez: Walden's seven tracks are just as bad, from the virtually identical synth-dance
hits "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" and "So Emotional" (by Billy Steinberg
& Tom Kelly) to the weepy ballad "Where Do Broken Hearts Go." On the many uptempo numbers Houston's vocals are hard
to hear over the synths (mostly played by Walter Afanasieff), while Masser's two tracks have the
opposite problem, with Houston overdramatizing like crazy ("Didn't We Almost Have It All" and "You're Still My Man,"
both would-be Broadway showstoppers recalling "(I Know) I'll Never Love This Way Again"). The mechanical Isley Brothers cover ("For The Love Of You") isn't just filler: it's a reminder that Houston's
voice can sound quite ordinary when she's not working at it. Creaky as it was, the formula still
worked from a sales standpoint, with millions of copies flying out of the stores. (DBW)
I'm Your Baby Tonight (1990)
Once again, no-risk 80s pop, split between dance cuts (the wonderful, high-energy title
track, produced by LA Reid and Babyface, and the loud but less
interesting "My Name Is Not Susan") and ballads (the
desperate "All The Man That I Need," which has become a drag queen
standard). About half the tracks are produced by Walden, and he
seems to be out of new ideas, using one pop cliché after
another (Sam Dees's "Lover For Life"). It's a shame, because Houston's voice is more powerful
than ever, tender and urgent by turns (Goffin & Masser's "After We Make Love"). Guest Stevie Wonder also turns in an outstanding
vocal performance on the duet he wrote, "We Didn't Know," but the composition is nowhere near his standard. (DBW)
In 1992 Houston contributed a few tracks to the soundtrack of her first feature film, The Bodyguard, which included
the inescapable cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You." (DBW)
In 1995 Houston sang three tracks on the Babyface-produced soundtrack to her second feature film,
Waiting To Exhale including the hit title track. (DBW)
In 1996, Houston appeared in another feature film, The Preacher's Wife, and sang a few songs for the soundtrack
- it was apparently gospel, or close to it. (DBW)
My Love Is Your Love (1998)
Suddenly noticing that Houston hadn't released a full album all decade, Clive Davis pulled together an LP in six
weeks flat. The album comes across as a contrived attempt to appeal to
every market, with Missy Elliott
("In My Business," "Oh Yes") and Rodney Jerkins (the
laughably mannered single "It's Not Right But It's Okay") providing the street credibility, David Foster (Dianne Warren's "I Learned From The
Best") bringing in the Adult Contemporary listeners,
and Babyface contributing the Quiet Storm tunes and the crossover hit (the Mariah Carey duet "When
You Believe," from the Prince Of Egypt soundtrack). But the material is shockingly weak: Elliott's endless ballad
"Oh Yes" is the tritest, dullest composition I've ever heard from her; "When You Believe" is a tuneless divafest that
sounds like self-parody; Wyclef Jean's title track is positively soporific. Jerkins does come up with some workable
grooves ("If I Told You That," "Get It Back," with a chaotic piano riff) but doesn't give her anything substantial to sing
over them. Meanwhile, Lauryn Hill proves she can suck the lifeforce out of anything,
producing a sluggish reggae-inflected cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Him."
Whitney: The Greatest Hits (2000)
A double CD: a few new duets (including "Same Script, Different Cast" with Deborah Cox) and a whole lot of hits. (DBW)
Just Whitney (2002)
Like My Love, a hastily assembled, star-studded, studiously au courant effort to remind us that Houston is a singer first and a tabloid icon - as discussed on "Whatchulookinat" - second. And in fact her voice sounds great: honey smooth on the ballads ("Things You Say"), crisp on the kissoffs ("Dear John Letter"), rambunctious on the uptempo pop (Rob Fusari's "Love That Man"). Speaking of vocal talent overshadowed by high-profile missteps, hubby Brown does a fine job on the duet "My Love" (not the McCartney tune).
The problems stem from the tunes themselves, bottom-drawer work from top-drawer producers like Babyface ("Tell Me No," a middling ballad with a hyper metal solo from Carlos Santana; "Try It On My Own") and Elliott ("Things You Say," also featuring Tweet). Worst of all, a cynical attempt to recreate "Always Love You" by covering the Debby Boone monstrosity "You Light Up My Life."
On the upside, the sinuous "Unashamed" (by Darius Good and Luke Paterna) is a standout; "One Of Those Days" samples the Isley Brothers babymaker "Between The Sheets."
One Wish: The Holiday Album (2003)
The usual standards: "The Christmas Song"; "Joy To The World"; and so on. Freddie Jackson's "One Wish (For Christmas)" was a single. (DBW)
I Look To You (2009)
Yet another attempt to return Houston to currency, and this time the tunes are better:
Alicia Keys's "Million Dollar Bill" is a retro R&B groove recalling much of As I Am; Danja's "Nothin' But Love" flirts lightheartedly with hip hop tropes; Akon's "I Got You" combines contemporary production with ageless melodicism. Of course, that's all stuff Mary J. Blige can do better in her sleep ("Worth It," with "No More Drama"-style piano tinkling opposite programmed drums).
Turning to what should be Houston's strong suit, the showstopper ballads uniformly flop (R. Kelly's title track; Diane Warren's "I Didn't Know My Own Strength").
StarGate's techno ballad remake of "A Song For You" is a contrived attempt at a gay dancefloor anthem, but Whitney elevates it with perhaps her best vocal performance on the disc.
How will you know? Wilson & Alroy will tell you.