The big myth is that Whitney Houston began her career as a great singer and slowly devolved, a victim of drink, drugs and high-maintenance love. But the truth is that her singing has only gotten richer over these hard years. She now must employ subtle phrasing to sell a song, where she once used bluster. And, Lord knows, her 10-year marriage to bad boy Bobby Brown has given her plenty to sing about.
On “Just Whitney,” her first album of new material since 1998, out today, Houston comes off as everything she wasn’t during her recent TV interview with Diane Sawyer: warm, lucid, open and sharp. The record tells the story of a woman determined to live and love as she pleases, despite the warnings of others and even her own good sense.
“At times, I know I don’t deserve you,” she muses on “Things You Say,” the album’s finest moment and one of the best performances of her 17-year career. This swaying, church-leaning ballad, penned by Missy Elliott and her protegee Tweet, among others, is all about a woman who’s the willful victim of a sweet-talking man. Houston’s voice roars and trembles, rushes and stalls, speaking volumes about the intoxicating, sometimes overwhelming rush of love, and making “Things You Say” a perfect soul song.
There are many other notable cuts too, among them “One of Those Days,” a breezy girls’-night-out, and “Dear John Letter,” which starts as a kiss-off but ends as yet another song about a woman who’s conflicted over her relationship. Then there are surprises like “My Love,” a midtempo duet with Brown. If their real-life chemistry is anything like it sounds on this cut, it’s no wonder they’ve been together for a decade.
The biggest misstep on the album is the defensive “Whatchulookinat.” If the jittery, bone-thin Houston still needs to ask what we’re looking at, she obviously hasn’t gazed into the mirror lately.
But this is a rare slip on an otherwise skillfully rendered collection. Houston even manages to bring conviction to a cover of Debby Boone’s saccharine “You Light Up My Life.” When Houston sings about sitting by her window “waiting for someone to sing me his song,” it’s almost redemptive.
Finally she’s become a singer who can transcend the song.