“The Wait Is Over…” read the monitors inside the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills on Thursday (July 23). Whitney Houston heralded her return to music with the last of three ritzy listening sessions for her first studio album in seven years, I Look to You.
Rap-Up.com was inside and has a play by play of the evening’s events, including our impressions of the nine previewed tracks.
The stars turned out in droves including Halle Berry, Jane Fonda, Stevie Wonder (who arrived fashionably late), Magic Johnson, Jackie Collins, Barry Manilow, Brett Ratner, Beverly Johnson, Diane Warren, Penny Marshall, Brian McKnight, David Foster, and Garcelle Beauvais. Phones and cameras were prohibited, although many disregarded the restriction.
Clive Davis introduced the album and played a video montage highlighting his protégé’s impressive achievements. The music mogul spoke about the 19-year-old girl he molded into one of the most successful artists of all time, selling 170 million albums, singles, and videos worldwide. He joked about how “American Idol” contestants get flak for attempting to cover Whitney songs because only the originator can do them justice. Whitney asked Clive if she should start writing her own songs, but he told her to only do so if she felt she could deliver something stellar. He then began playing each of the nine songs, starting with “Million Dollar Bill.”
During the last song, a cover of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” the 45-year-old singer walked on stage to a standing ovation and roaring cheers, wearing a black cocktail dress. She looked happy and healthy. “I am so humbled and so thankful for you all for coming. There is so much love in the room and I thank you and I feel it,” she told the crowd.
She hugged Stevie Wonder (“How much I love that man, I can’t even tell you”) and acknowledged the other celebrities in attendance including her close friend Halle Berry (“How’s the baby?”), Jane Fonda (“I almost croaked. Jane Fonda at my listening party?!”), Beverly Johnson (“Baby, you are America’s Top Model”), R. Kelly (“One of the best singer-songwriters in the industry”), Diane Warren (who she impersonated), and David Foster.
“It took me three-and-a-half years,” she said about the recording process. “I took my time.” Clive and Whitney worked closely together on the project. “I’m back home where I belong,” she said looking at Clive, before joking that he parties like a rock star. She recalled when Clive once told her, “You’re just impossible!” After seeing plaques from legends like Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin on his office walls, she asked, “I’m the impossible one?” Everyone laughed.
The new album is contemporary, but you can expect to hear the same Whitney Houston you’ve come to know and love. The empowering songs have a feel-good vibe, complemented by Whitney’s strong vocals (in fine form) and memorable melodies courtesy of today’s top producers and songwriters such as Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Akon, R. Kelly, Danja, Eric Hudson, Diane Warren, David Foster, Claude Kelly, and Tricky Stewart. The music feels natural and not trying to pander to what’s hot at the moment.
Whitney exited the stage just as she entered, to a standing ovation and thunderous applause. “God bless you. I love you. Peace!”
Below are the nine tracks we heard. They are unfinished versions in many cases, according to Clive.
1. “Million Dollar Bill”
Swizz Beatz/Alicia Keys
As we first reported here, Swizz Beatz produced this track. Alicia Keys wrote it after personally asking Clive to write for Whitney’s album. The song doesn’t have a typical Swizz sound and feels more old-school R&B. It puts you in a good mood, but don’t let the title fool you. This is not an attempt at being a hip-hop club banger. It was the favorite for many. No doubt this will become a single.
2. “Nothin’ But Love”
Uptempo, danceable, hand-clapping beat. Whitney’s vocals are on prominent display as she belts out several long runs. Urban radio will eat this up.
3. “Call You Tonight”
This was a contender for the lead single. It features a guitar riff common in Stargate productions (“With You” and “Irreplaceable”). “I wish that I could stay, but I gotta go/ Let me call you tonight, just as soon as I get home,” she sings.
4. “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength”
David Foster/Diane Warren
A version of this previously leaked to the Internet. Clive likened the power ballad to “I Will Always Love You.” It was recorded after her separation from Bobby Brown and tells of triumph in the face of diversity. Clive told Diane Warren, “You’ve written one of your great copyrights.”
5. “Like I Never Left” feat. Akon
Another track that leaked last year. The version that was played sounded more complete with added bass. Clive said Whitney wanted an island song, so they reached out to Akon. Clive started to dance to this one, which was pretty entertaining in itself. We didn’t love this when we first heard it, but it has grown on us considerably.
Militaristic, marching beat. R. Kelly also has his vocals featured (“Eh eh eh”). One of our personal faves. “I’m a soldier girl/ In this world/ I stand alone/ I can be strong/ I walked the lines/ I made it home/ It’s good to know without you I made it.” Whitney even throws in an LL Cool J reference: “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years.”
7. “I Look to You”
R. Kelly/Tricky Stewart/Harvey Mason Jr.
Powerful piano ballad that sums up the album. “When all my strength is gone, I look to you,” she sings. “This song says all I wanted to say,” explains Whitney of the title track, which is also the first single.
8. “Worth It”
Eric Hudson/Johnta Austin
Midtempo piano ballad. “I know somebody’s gonna make love to this song tonight,” she coos. A great groove and the dark horse of the album.
9. “A Song for You”
Leon Russell/Harvey Mason Jr.
A cover of Leon Russell’s 1970 song. Starts off slow with a piano intro, then speeds up towards the middle. Some of the audience got up and danced when they heard this. An unexpected take on a classic.
Whitney Houston’s 7th studio album I Look to You arrives September 1.