When Whitney Houston passed away last month, the world lost one of it’s most treasured voices. And despite the fact that the voice had been tarnished due to abuse (both of the vocal variety and the chemical variety,) there’s no arguing that Whitney influenced an entire generation of singers much in the same way that artists like Aretha Franklin and her cousin Dionne Warwick influenced her.
Whitney left behind and incredibly short discography for someone of her stature. She released 6 studio albums in a quarter-century as an active recording artist, along with three soundtracks in which she served as the lead artist and a greatest hits album. There’s been a lot of focus on Whitney’s extracurricular activities in the immediate aftermath of her death-now, let’s focus on the music.
Whitney Houston (1985): It’s worth noting that when Whitney’s debut arrived on the scene in the spring of 1985, there were virtually no other young black women on pop radio. Hell, there were virtually no other black women of any age on pop radio. Diana Ross ruled the roost, but by 1985, her career had hit a snag. Aretha hadn’t yet made her comeback with “Freeway Of Love” yet, and Dionne Warwick was hit-or-miss. So the lane was wide open for Whitney to break through and become almost a female Michael Jackson-without the dance moves and with music that was far more sappy. Okay, so the comparison doesn’t totally make sense. I tried.
This album pretty much set the formula that would define Whitney for the next decade or so of her career. Heavily orchestrated ballads (I remember some writer calling it “velveteen shlock”) rubbed up against state-of-the-art pop/dance songs. The quality is all over the place. “Saving All My Love For You,” Whitney’s first #1 pop hit, is an excellent torchy ballad, but “All At Once” and her cover of George Benson’s “Greatest Love Of All” are one leather-lunged vocalist away from being an Air Supply song. “How Will I Know” is an innocent dance-pop triumph, and she displays solid chemistry on duets with male singers like Kashif (on the surprisingly funky “Thinking About You”,) Jermaine Jackson (she tones the histrionics way down on the pleasant midtempo bouncer “Take Good Care Of My Heart”) and Teddy Pendergrass (sounding mature beyond her 21 years on “Hold Me.”) Clive Davis definitely did his best to cover all demographic bases here, there’s no disputing the power of Whitney’s voice, and there are a handful of must-have songs here. Grade: B
Whitney (1987) : Two years later, Whitney’s a superstar, and she don’t need no stinkin’ duets. The only vocalist to appear on Whitney is mom Cissy Houston, who incidentally (or not) guests on the album’s worst track, “You’re Still My Man.” However, aside from the jettisoning of any guest artists, Clive and Whitney stuck close to the script when it came to album #2. The schlocky ballads are still there (“Didn’t We Almost Have It All” is stomach-churning) as are the peppy dance tunes (DONTYAWANNADANCE! SAYYAWANNADANCE! DONTYAWANNADANCE??.) In the time between Whitney’s first and second albums, a particular grain of yuppie soul quiet-storm type music had become popular (as performed by the likes of Anita Baker and Freddie Jackson) and songs like the elegant “Just The Lonely Talking Again” and an airy cover of The Isley Brothers’ “For The Love Of You” (featuring Kenny G. on sax!) capitalized on that craze to become sizable airplay hits on urban radio despite not being released as singles. Again, the album’s a bit of a mess stylistically, but the good tunes cancel out the crappy ones (for the most part) and Whitney’s voice puts everything over the top. Grade: B
I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990) If you’ve followed Whitney’s story at all, then you’re probably well aware that during her initial run of success, she was occasionally accused of not sounding “black” enough (as was Michael, as was Prince, as was Lionel Richie. Anyway…) By the time her third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, arrived on the scene at the end of 1990, she also had the emergence of rival Mariah Carey to contend with. So Baby Tonight was meant to be the sound of a woman reclaiming her crown. What it ended up being was the worst studio album of Whitney’s career. There are really only four noteworthy songs here: the #1 title track, the sassy “My Name Is Not Susan” and “Anymore” (all of which were produced by L.A. Reid & Babyface, who were on the hottest of hot streaks at the time,) as well as the chilled out jam “I Belong To You.” Elsewhere, there are still a handful of ridiculously sappy ballads (“Miracle” and “All The Man That I Need” chief among them) and both Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross mail it in on the production tip. I’m Your Baby Tonight became her first album to miss the #1 spot, and rightfully so. For the most part, it sucks. Whitney was not on her A-game here. Grade: C
The Bodyguard (Original Soundtrack) (1992): And then, the comeback. Whitney starred in her first film role, playing a sing…er, basically, herself. The first single from the movie’s soundtrack was a dramatic reading of Dolly Parton’s #1 country hit “I Will Always Love You,” which Whitney sang the certified shit out of. You know what happens from there–everyone and their mother bought that soundtrack album, sending it to #1 for what seemed like forever, winning Whitney a busload of awards, and making everyone forget that I’m Your Baby Tonight almost killed her career. “I Will Always Love You” (rightfully) is the song that will always define Whitney, one of the best vocal performances of her life, and is certainly this soundtrack album’s centerpiece.
The album is split about evenly between Whitney songs and tracks by other (Arista Records-signed) artists. So basically Clive Davis got half a Whitney album, half an Arista sampler, and sold a bajillion copies of it. Only in America, folks.
The Whitney songs are uniformly solid. “Run To You” is a prototypical bombastic Whitney ballad, with only her vocals elevating it over the crap pile, “Queen of the Night” is a punchy tune with elements of rock (very much in the vein of En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind,” which was a hit the same year,) “I Have Nothing” is a fantastic torch song, and the cover of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” is jubilant, although it sounds a bit dated now. As far as the other stuff…um, yeah. There’s an Aaron Neville/Kenny G. collaboration (blech,) a mediocre track from blue-eyed soulster Lisa Stansfield, and the excellent “It’s Gonna Be A Lovely Day,” a re-imagining of Bill Withers’ classic “Lovely Day” created by a group called The S.O.U.L. System-which was basically C+C Music Factory fronted by Michelle Visage of early-Nineties four-hit wonders Seduction. Worth picking up, if only for “I Will Always Love You.” Grade: B-
Waiting To Exhale (Original Soundtrack) (1995): For her second feature film, an adaptation of Terry McMillan’s best-selling novel Waiting To Exhale, Whitney decided she didn’t want to carry the load of the soundtrack on her own this time, so she (and producer Babyface) called on an all-star cast of female soul singers to contribute to a largely enjoyable compilation.
Whitney’s contributions, aside from the CeCe Winans-featured “I love you sistagirl!” piece of cheese that was “Count On Me,” are solid. She’s understated grace on “Exhale (Shoop Shoop),” while burning with resignation and pain on “Why Does It Hurt So Bad?” Since filming and recording “The Bodyguard” three years before, she’d developed an edgier vocal quality, a bite that made her more bittersweet songs sound less pretty, and more lived in…and for the record, I was totally on board with this new wrinkle. As for the rest of the soundtrack, while there are some excellent tracks, it does highlight the overall sameness of Babyface’s production style. Brandy’s effervescent, girlish “Sittin’ Up In My Room” and TLC’s sly, sensual “This Is How It Works” have almost the same backing track. Placing them near one another on the album’s track listing didn’t help matters. Anyway…
The new jacks fared better than the vets on this album, for the most part. Toni Braxton delivered one of her most torchy performances on “Let It Flow,” while Mary J. Blige proved herself a true descendant of blues singers like Etta James on “Not Gon’ Cry.” Spoken word artist Sonja Marie’s “And I Gave My Love To You” evokes a smoother, more palatable Meshell N’degeocello, while Chante Moore’s “Wey U” is a breezy triumph. However, Aretha Franklin banshee-wails her way through the awful “It Hurts Like Hell,” and Patti LaBelle sounds surprisingly restrained (and boring) on “My Love, Sweet Love.” A tightening of the track listing may have resulted in an A, but as it stands, Exhale can breathe easy with a Grade: B.
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