The several hundred guests -- among them Bravo head honcho and Real Housewives of you name it reunion referee Andy Cohen, Whitney's cousin Dionne Warwick, Alicia Keys, Whitney's mother and daugther, Martha Stewart, Gayle King (aka Oprah's Gayle), and a who's who of the media world -- munched osso bucco and downed glasses of Chardonnay before entering into the breathtaking Allen Room at Lincoln Center (picture a concert hall with 80 foot glass windows behind the stage looking out onto Central Park) to hear the album.
So, what did it sound like? Davis made a point to talk about how "youthful" and current the songs are and I agree. While much credit has to go to the top shelf producers and songwriters (among them R. Kelly, Stargate, David Foster, and Diane Warren) for writing fresh, contemporary tracks, Whitney still has it. Her voice was vibrant and effortlessly reached the same notes she was hitting back in the early '90s (Davis himself spent much of the night reaching into the air at key moments to signify -- in case we didn't realize what was going on -- that Houston was catapaulting her voice). After hearing the first single, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength," I was worried we were in for an album of treacly ballads (and worse -- an album of treacly ballads about overcoming hardships -- bluck) but seven of the nine tracks that were played were dance or pop/r&b numbers.
The first song, "Million Dollar Bill" was written by Alicia Keys (who usually doesn't write for other people but was so inspired by a performance Whitney did in February that she called up Davis and asked if she could give it a whirl) had the crowd on their feet, chief among them Alicia herself who sang along while videotaping the audience's reaction with a tiny camcorder. It happily clomped through the verses and then churned into a killer chorus. My other favorites were "Nothin' But Love," which Davis likened to earlier classics like "Somebody To Dance With" and "How Will I Know," but it sounded more sinister to me with a brooding beat and a handful of throaty vocals the likes of which I've never heard come out of Whitney's mouth before. "Like I Never Left," which Davis called "an island song" is a duet between Houston and Akon (who wrote and produced the song) and has surefire hit written all over it. The title track, penned by R Kelly, is about finding strength in God (though, I guess you could swap in anyone else if you're adverse to that kind of thing like I am).
Overall, I think the album will do really well. Do I think that the songs will, as Davis said, "be sung for decades and decades to come"? No. While I often need a little time to get into and fully appreciate a record, I didn't hear any tracks that sounded like instant classics. But with the hype machine behind I Look To You already hard at work and with a bunch of really solid tracks in the can, I'd be willing to bet that Whitney's comeback is all but guaranteed.
When Houston finally took to the stage wearing a strange (p?)leather turtleneck dress halfway into the last track of the evening, a dancey cover of Leon Russell's "A Song For You" (which has already been covered by everyone from Cher to Willie Nelson), she was animated and gracious. She ran up onto the stage, gave Davis a kiss and a high five, and then plunged into the overjoyed crowd to hug family members, Keys, and anyone else in the front two rows. After thanking us for coming, telling Gayle King to let Oprah know that she would be calling her soon, and saying that she wanted to go live on a desert island and open a fruit stand but Davis refused to let her, she thanked us another 14 times and then sauntered off the stage. The crowd seemed sold on the return of, as Davis puts it, "the premiere balladeer of our time," but only time will tell if the record buying and radio listening masses agree.
I Look To You is due in stores September 1.
-- NOAH MICHELSON
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