Today's Whitney Houston will sit you down and tell you all about her regrets and the winter storms she's suffered and how she's not built to break and why you should take her back like she never left, but nothing we've heard so far in advance of I Look to You has sold the theme of triumphant return as well as "Million Dollar Bill." Telling is one thing (a thing that often feels like dwelling), but "Million Dollar Bill" instead shows Whitney moving on to joy. It's like a sonic handkerchief to blot up the weepy ballads that have leaked in recent months.
It's also perfect. Clearly what Clive Davis, producer Swizz Beatz, writer Alicia Keys and Whitney are going for here is crafting her her own "Just Fine": an age-appropriate uptempo song that the kids can enjoy, too. It could work in a car commercial or at the end of some Tyler Perry movie when everything works out and the family gets down to dance themselves off-screen. "Just Fine" struck me as wishy-washy, though. It was a disco track that was kind of embarrassed about itself, forgoing the heavy orchestration and 4/4 beats it begged for and settling for something hand-clapped and relatively minimal. By borrowing heavily from Loleatta Holloway's "We're Getting Stronger," Swizz has crafted a jam for Whitney that falls right between the Philadelphia sound and disco. The flamboyance is at a surprising minimum. The source material is as unobvious as having a diva like Whitney sing over a track that stomps so forcefully is a no-brainer.
And about that singing, look: her voice is different than it was in her prime. It sounds reedy and weary with age, like sore bones in the morning. The marrow is still there, but what's around it is brittle and splintered. It's probably never again going to flip and soar through the air for us, but that's OK. It sounds lived-in. It sounds human. Back in the day, Whitney didn't have to do so much as part her lips to sound like a million bucks; after all she's been through, that she can feel that way at all is indeed something to sing about.
What's funny about this project is that before it's sold even a copy, its angle is success. Others wait for people to comment on their arrival; Whitney explicitly announces her comeback. If you can stomach the self-celebration, there's something worth admiring in defining success by means other than numbers. (It's also probably wise, considering the state of record sales in '09.) Whether Whitney making music worth listening to again signals an achievement probably depends on how much you care about her in the first place. But I'll tell you what: after all that shit -- the divorce, the crack den, the seemingly destroyed voice, the Ray J -- if even a tenth of the exuberance she projects on "Million Dollar Bill" is sincere, this is all the comeback that she needs.