At the beginning of the 1990s, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey fought for the title of top diva, striving to outdo each other with sugary ballads and glass-shattering melisma. But somewhere along the way the two women’s paths diverged—while Carey has updated her sound and attempted to stay relevant through hip-hop collaborations and auto-tune experimentation, Houston has been silent for much of the decade.
Houston’s new album, I Look to You, makes no attempt to sound current. Up-tempo sing-alongs like “Million Dollar Bill” and “For the Lovers” could be cuts from mid-’80s LPs Whitney Houston or Whitney, and the ballads—highlighted by “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” and the title track—sound pretty timeless.
The disc’s sound was shaped by longtime music mogul Clive Davis, the man responsible for signing her to Arista in 1983, and for luring her back into the studio after her recent seven-year lull. Houston says he helped her draw on her gospel background, and that she also found inspiration from, of all people, R. Kelly, who wrote two tracks on the album. “He stood there with me in the studio and wrote the second verse right off the top of his head,” she writes in the press notes for “I Look to You,” adding, “As he was singing, I was praying, and the words just came out.”
It’s a strange story, but somehow a woman mainly known these days for her tabloid antics has produced an inspirational, crossover-ready R&B album that’s as powerful as her early work. Sure, there are a few oddities: “A Song for You” employs a strange Euro-pop beat, and Akon collaboration “Like I Never Left” feels forced and uncomfortable. But overall, I Look to You is more satisfying than Houston’s fans had any reason to expect.