It’s impossible to talk about “The Voice” without talking about crack. And Newports, which Whitney Houston was seen clutching between her index and middle fingers on almost every episode of 2005’s Being Bobby Brown, and which are arguably more damaging to the human voice. Her voice breaks awkwardly when it should soar, low notes sound husky, and high notes dangle frustratingly out of reach on “I Look to You,” the second of two treacly, inspirational, and purportedly autobiographical ballads that leaked onto the Internet in advance of the singer’s comeback album of the same name. She painfully enunciates the lyrics, written by R. Kelly and accompanied by a typically elementary piano melody, while the David Foster-produced “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength” is only slightly more tolerable—a small triumph in itself, really, considering that it was written by Diane Warren.
Whitney was still in relatively fine voice on her last studio album, 2002’s Just Whitney, but despite the easy, breezy nature of the songs, there was a sinking feeling that things weren’t okay, and the artist’s infamous interview with Diane Sawyer around the time of the album’s release confirmed those suspicions. I Look to You, on the other hand, finds Whitney struggling to hit notes and deliver phrases that should come effortlessly to such a seasoned vocalist; her vocal cords are plagued by edema, her voice reedy and lacking the crystalline clarity it once possessed on classics like “I Will Always Love You” and “I Have Nothing”—but she sounds alive, and seemingly happy to be.
The New Voice lives more contently in the midtempo numbers that allow her to sink into the grooves. Lead single “Million Dollar Bill” borrows its backing track liberally from Loleatta Holloway’s “We’re Getting Stronger,” effectively masking hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz’s involvement (the song’s composer, Alicia Keys, is a decidedly more obvious presence). Replete with rubbery bassline and tinny hi-hats, it’s a bona fide disco nugget that should appeal to both of Whitney’s target audiences: R&B and AC radio. Just as good is “I Got You,” on which the singer revisits the subtle reggae vibe that worked so well for her on “My Love Is Your Love.” For the most part, I Look to You manages to sound completely contemporary without the use of guest rappers, dumbed-down lyrics, or slang.
Danja, who produced two tracks here, proves to be a surprisingly formidable collaborator for the ex Mrs. Brown. While it’s nearly impossible to imagine that the oft-vitriolic singer doesn’t harbor any ill will toward the likes of Wendy Williams, she deserves credit for nearly convincing us that she wishes only the best to “anyone who tried to hate on me” on “Nothin’ But Love.” Amid some cool, futuristic synth lines and a pulsating beat, she embraces a newly guttural tone that recalls Annie Lennox’s lower register, and though she may have once had the chops to put Donny Hathaway to shame, she flips “A Song for You” on its head by turning it into an unexpected house anthem. Reminiscent of her cover of “I’m Every Woman,” it’s a reminder that, while she may be best known for her power ballads, Whitney’s also an icon on the dance floor and has a knack for making other people’s songs her own.
I Look to You ends with another R. Kelly composition, “Salute,” which juxtaposes a tinkling piano riff with a military march and an apt “I’m a soldier girl” hook. It sounds like Whitney recorded the song with a gumball planted in her cheek, but oddly, that seems to add to the sense of casualness with which she tosses off bon mots like “Don’t call it a comeback/No, I’ve been here for years.” It’s in these moments that Whitney—having finally kicked both the pipe and her man to the curb and setting her sights on reclaiming a throne she, in typical Nippy fashion, denies she ever lost—sounds positively triumphant.