Released when cutting-edge R&B took a turn for the electronic and futuristic, Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut LP pitched her directly into the middle of the road. But hers was MOR of a very classy stripe, as evidenced by You Give Good Love. Moreover, her voice was potent enough to add emotion and grit to the slick surroundings.
An old Annie Lennox B-side transformed into something magical by way of a house-influenced beat, the slowly building synth chatter of its arrangement and an infusion of gospel into the chorus. Houston sounds imperious throughout, delivering the pep-talk lyrics about fearless self-improvement with utter conviction.
“I love you,” she says to Look Into Your Heart’s author Curtis Mayfield as it gets underway. Certainly, she picked a great deep cut to cover for his tribute album, originally sung by Aretha Franklin for the soundtrack to 1976’s Sparkle (Houston later produced and starred in a remake). These are big shoes to fill, but Houston does it with aplomb.
It says something about the sheer pile-up of immense ballads on The Bodyguard’s soundtrack album that Run to You was relegated to the lowly position of fourth single. If it’s not quite up to the standard of I Will Always Love You or as involving as I Have Nothing, it’s still simultaneously vulnerable and CinemaScope-epic.
By the time of her final album, I Look to You, Houston’s lifestyle had audibly affected her voice; the subsequent tour was very far from her best. There was a sense of rallying round to Alicia Keys’s insistence on writing and producing its big hit Million Dollar Bill, but the disco-infused, Loleatta Holloway-sampling results were authentically fantastic.
On the one hand, Count on Me’s paean to enduring friendship tends a little to the schmaltzy and sentimental, but – as often happened in Houston’s career – her voice, and, in this case, the evident real-life chemistry between her and her duet partner, CeCe Winans, lifts the material to a different plane.
A final grandstanding ballad, courtesy of Dianne Warren, its lyrics obviously addressing Houston’s troubled marriage and drug problems. There’s something genuinely moving about hearing her deliver them in a huskier, lower voice than the one that made her famous, adding a patina of hard-won experience.
It takes a certain kind of chutzpah to sample a classical piece as famous as Beethoven’s Für Elise, but chutzpah is not something this duet is lacking in. The lyrics – complete with spoken-word intro – feature Houston testily confronting her love rival (Canadian singer Deborah Cox) and it piles on the dramatic key changes as it races towards its climax.
The first single from Just Whitney was the woeful Whatchulookinat, less a song than a damage-limitation exercise. But, if her life was spiralling and the quality control on her albums accordingly faulty, Houston could still occasionally turn it out: Isley Brothers-sampling second single One of Those Days is a wildly underrated R&B gem.
It now seems amazing that this wasn’t the first choice of single from Houston’s debut. Mum Cissy wasn’t keen on her daughter singing from the point of view of a man’s mistress, but what’s notable is the lack of raunch here; it’s a song about wistful sadness – realism battling with expectation you know is going to be deflated.
Whoever searched out songs for Houston had sharp ears: lurking on a flop 1982 album by disco-era star Linda Clifford was the raw material for an anthem. Houston doesn’t just turn everything up to 11, she smartly digs into the lyric’s desperation, emphasising the line “he’s all I’ve got” – raw emotion behind the pyrotechnics.
It’s instructive to compare Houston’s version of The Greatest Love of All with George Benson’s original. The latter is fine, a big tearjerking MOR ballad fit to climax a movie, which it did. But Houston turns it into a showstopper; there’s a force and power to her delivery that immediately makes the original sound lacking.
It’s easy to take I Will Always Love You for granted – it’s now so familiar that it barely registers as it plays. But try and disassociate it from its all-pervading status and listen to the vocal: for all the flourishes and power notes, it never loses its emotional heft, never sounds like Houston doesn’t mean every word.
Clearly, the frosty reception she received at the 1989 Soul Train awards – from a crowd who thought she barely qualified as a soul artist given her appeal to white listeners – affected Houston. Her 1990 album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, leaned away from pop towards new jack swing, exemplified by its splendid title track, which sets her voice against a noticeably tougher mesh of samples. The chorus is still as catchy as hell.
Modelled on Deniece Williams’ Let’s Hear It for the Boy, How Will I Know? is a vastly better song than Williams’ perky 1984 hit: a perfectly formed slice of mid-80s bubblegum soul – booming drums, sax solo and all – as bright and appealing as the neon colours splashed around the set of its video.
Producer Rodney Jerkins cooked up a hipper sound than Houston was previously associated with – music box tones, slinky bass line, clattering beats – only to see it overlooked by radio and left off Houston’s 2000 compilation The Greatest Hits in favour of a house remix. The original is the one you want: its cool tone fits the subject matter perfectly.
It’s hard to escape the fact that My Love Is Your Love leans very heavily on Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry for inspiration, but it’s equally hard to avoid the fact that it’s a fantastic song: warm and cosseting, with a hip-hop-influenced sound that’s leftfield by Houston’s standards, and blessed with a beautifully intimate vocal.
Houston reins it in here, her vocal relatively relaxed and low-key, as befits a song about letting go and moving on. Coupled with imperial-phase Babyface on songwriting and production duties, and a hook that takes up permanent residence in your brain the first time you hear it, it’s an understated masterpiece.
Plenty of objections have been raised about Houston’s 80s oeuvre – too soft, too calculated, too eager to reach a white audience – but it’s a total curmudgeon who doesn’t feel their heart lift a fraction when I Wanna Dance With Somebody bounds joyfully out of the speakers – irresistible instant sunshine in musical form.
It was inevitably commercially overshadowed by the blockbusting I Will Always Love You, but I Have Nothing is the Whitney Houston power ballad to end all Whitney Houston power ballads, a five-minute-long emotional rollercoaster ride that surges from gentle pleading to full-on hell-hath-no-fury anger (“don’t you DARE walk away from me!”) with all the vocal trimmings thrown in. The handiwork of David Foster – a songwriter derided by Rolling Stone as “the master of bombastic pop kitsch” – and his then-wife, Linda Thompson, in lesser hands I Have Nothing would just sound histrionic, but Houston’s vocal makes it utterly gripping and believable – an alchemist at work.