HEADLINE: Music; Getting intimate with Whitney

BYLINE: By Larry Katz

Copyright 1999 Boston Herald Inc.

Whitney Houston has an impatient edge in her voice. To suggest that her music has become less innocent and more grown up, it seems, is to belabor the obvious. This diva does not suffer fools - or what she considers foolish questions - gladly.

"I'm not 19 anymore," she says. "I'm 35. I'm a wife and mother. That should tell you a lot."

Houston is speaking by phone from her bus. She is traveling to Detroit from Chicago, where she just finished the first two shows of a tour - her first in five years - that comes to the Wang Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday and is scheduled to conclude in Russia in October.

Instead of performing in the arenas she sold out easily in the past, she is playing more intimate theaters. It appears a surprising choice to everyone except Houston.

"Why are people surprised," she snaps. "I'm not crazy about arenas just because I can sell them out. It doesn't do anything for my ego at all. I want to play places where people don't have to sit in the nosebleed seats and wonder what the hell is going on. This is about playing places people can actually feel you, can actually know what you're wearing, what clothes you have on."

This last point is significant. On this tour, the size 4 Houston, a former teenage model, is wearing and promoting clothes by in-crowd designers Dolce & Gabbanna. She scored high marks for her fashion sense from the critics in Chicago, and even higher marks for her performance, which included a vocal cameo from her 6-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina.

Houston's voice brightens at the mention of her daughter's name. Does the child have musical genes?

"It does sound like that, doesn't it," Houston shoots back.

Houston's husband of seven years is musical, too: Boston-born, New Edition-member-turned-solo-star Bobby Brown. But in recent years, Brown has made more news with his arrests and legal troubles than with a career at a standstill.

Denying the constant rumors of rifts in her marriage, Houston enthusiastically credits her husband for pushing her toward the hip-hop beats that invigorate her latest release, "My Love Is Your Love."

"He's my greatest supporter and inspiration," she says. "He's the hip-hop king, man. He knows all about it. Ha ha! It's wonderful when you have a partner you can relate to and absorb certain things from. It's very cool."

Houston does admit there is another man in her life - professionally, that is. Arista Records head Clive Davis has guided her career since the release of her debut album in 1985.

"Clive is an adviser, a teacher," she says. "You have to listen to him, learn from him, watch him every time. He's definitely hip. Clive is the man."

Last year, Davis suggested that Houston merely cut a few new songs for a planned greatest hits CD.

"I collected so many great songs that I wanted to do them all," Houston says. "So I nixed the greatest hits and did a whole new album."

The result, "My Love Is Your Love," was recorded in just two months. Released last November, it is Houston's first new studio album in eight years. But it didn't come after any kind of layoff. On the contrary. In the '90s, the New Jersey-born Houston became a movie star. And she continued to sell CDs at a record-setting pace.

Her music dominated the soundtrack of "The Bodyguard," the 1992 movie in which she appeared in her first starring role. The Dolly Parton-penned single, "I Will Always Love You," remained at No.1 for 14 weeks and the album, with sales of more than 33 million, became the best-selling soundtrack ever. The soundtrack to her next movie, "The Preacher's Wife," became the best-selling gospel album ever. Next came a role in "Waiting to Exhale" and with it a soundtrack that sold more than 10 million copies.

Despite such success, when it came to making "My Love Is Your Love," Houston decided it was time for a change in musical flavor.

"There has been a transition in music since eight years ago and it's called hip-hop," she says. "It's a different groove out there, a different way of walking and talking. When you're in this industry and you know that changes have happened, you go with the flow."

"My Love Is Your Love" contains the leanest and toughest music of Houston's career. Her collaborators include Wyclef Jean (the Bob Marley-like title cut), Lauryn Hill (a sharp cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her"), Faith Evans and Kelly Price (joining voices with Houston on a new "Heartbreak Hotel," not the Elvis oldie), Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott and 21-year-old wunderkind producer Rodney Jerkins.

Houston makes it emphatically clear that she - not Brown, not Davis - chose her hip-hopping helpmates.

"I just knew who I liked and who I wanted and that was it," she says. "No one else decided. It was me. All me."

Rapper-producer Elliott supplied two songs for the album. One of them, "In My Business," scathingly dresses down gossips obsessed with Houston's personal affairs.

"Of course I related to this song," Houston says. "Most of the media is more interested in my personal business than they are in my music. Why I'll never know."

But anyone looking for hints of marital discord in the song lyrics will find it. Houston plumbs the depths of heartbreak caused by a deceptive lover in several tunes. Lest we get the wrong idea, the liner notes contain a disclaimer: "The events and characters depicted in this album are fictitious."

"People can be very naive," Houston says. "I didn't want anyone to think that this album was based on my relationship with my husband. It's based on relationships, period. Nothing more."

The Houston heard singing sinewy, hip-hop-powered r&b on "My Love Is Your Love" is almost unrecognizable from the soaring singer who wailed "I Will Always Love You." But, so as not to alienate longtime fans, she also includes several Babyface-produced ballads on the album. And there's the old-fashioned inspirational number, "When You Believe," a duet with Mariah Carey from "The Prince of Egypt."

When the song was released last fall, it set the rumor mills spinning. It was claimed that the two superstars made the recording despite a mutual rivalry bordering on hatred.

"No, no," Houston says heatedly. "People take what they hear and they get this wrong impression. And then you're screwed from jumpstreet. They don't give me or anyone else a chance. And that really sucks. You have to give people the opportunity to love and be loved. That's the way it is with Mariah and me. We have mad love for each other."

But when you're Whitney Houston, the world insists on trying to find a cloud in every silver lining. She seems genuinely baffled that this is so.

"People are so morbid, so gloomy," she says in wonderment. "They should be awake. They should be alive and happy for once in their lives. Yeah. Be happy."

The diva commands, but who will obey?

Whitney Houston performs Wednesday and Thursday at the Wang Theatre, Boston. Both shows are sold out.


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