USA Today:  Houston hones her edge on 'Love'

NEW YORK — Movies have kept Whitney Houston so busy for the past eight years, she hasn't really had time for a new studio album.

Of course, it's not as if she's been missing from the charts. The Bodyguard (1992) sold more than 33 million albums worldwide and is the best-selling soundtrack of all time. The Preacher's Wife (1996) is the biggest gospel album in history, and Waiting To Exhale (1995) sold more than 10 million copies.

Still, with all her songs defined by her film roles, it's been quite a while since she made her own musical statement.

On My Love Is Your Love, which hits stores Nov. 17, the five-time Grammy winner sings of life, love and living in the spotlight. She teams not only with long-time collaborators Diane Warren and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, but with hot young producers Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, Soulshock & Karlin, Wyclef Jean, Rodney Jerkins, and Lauryn Hill as well.

The result is a tougher, funkier, edgier Houston than has been heard in a long time. The album, only her fourth in a 13-year recording career, is the first since 1990's multiplatinum I'm Your Baby Tonight.

"I got a call from my dad in the industry (Arista president Clive Davis, who launched her career in 1985) and he said, 'It's time for you to come back to your job," says Houston, 35. "I said, 'I thought I had one.' But he said, 'No. We want to hear you again. A studio album without a movie to go along with it. We want to hear you sing.' "

To launch the album, Arista hosted an unusual listening party/press conference at Sony Studios, attended by a crush of 500 journalists and sent out internationally via satellite. Davis played the entire album to a de facto captive audience, talking about the making of each of the album's 13 songs and introducing several of the producers in attendance.

He acknowledged that playing the whole album at foreground volume was "a little ballsy, because it invites scrutiny. But we have respect and love and passion for what has come out here . . . You can listen to it without cocktail talk or listening to it in the background."

Ironically, the catalyst for the new album was another movie — DreamWorks' animated retelling of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg suggested to Davis that Houston team with Mariah Carey for the inspirational When You Believe, which is heard just before the closing credits in the movie. The Babyface-produced song will appear on not only My Love Is Your Love, but on Carey's greatest hits compilation, 1's, and one of the film's three soundtrack albums. All will be released Nov. 17.

No diva-duo tension

Houston, who also worked with singers Faith Evans and Kelly Price on the album's Heartbreak Hotel, says doing the song with Carey was "a beautiful thing" and that rumors of tension between the two were false.

"We came together to sing, we didn't come together to fight," she says. "Mariah and I never had a rivalry because I didn't know her well enough to have one with her and she didn't know me well enough to have one with me. So when we met, we got to know each other and now we're friends."

Houston's album was also originally planned as a greatest-hits package, but once the producers started lining up, Davis opted to try for something fresh. The only question was whether the singer would be able to finish everything in the six weeks or so available to meet the projected release date.

After talking with Houston about her much-in-the-news marriage to singer Bobby Brown, Elliott came up with the song In My Business. Inspired by watching the couple up close, Elliott came back a few days later with the affirming Oh Yes.

Houston accepted an invitation from Jerkins, the 21-year-old wunderkind who produced four songs on the album as well as this summer's long-running No. 1 hit The Boy Is Mine for Brandy and Monica, to sing at his dad's New Jersey church, where the producer still plays organ every Sunday.

Running session marathon

Everybody had to hustle. Houston spent one night a couple of weeks ago running between floors at New York's Hit Factory for separate sessions with Elliott, Jerkins and Jean, who wrote the spiritual, reggae-tinged title track. Things were so hectic at times, Houston had to be reminded of which tune she was working on.

Lauryn Hill, who is expecting her second child soon, spent 20 hours at the studio after Houston had done her vocals so that I Was Made to Love Him, a frolicking remake of Stevie Wonder's I Was Made to Love Her, could make the album. It missed the album's credit deadline, but is included on the CD as a hidden bonus track.

Houston, who started her career as a young singer working with producers like Michael Masser and Narada Michael Walden, says she wanted to make sure she clicked with this new generation of producers.

"I don't consider myself old," she says. "I can hang with the best of them. I just wanted it to work and I didn't want them to think that I couldn't do what the kids do. Actually, I can do it with my eyes closed.

"This is not a different Whitney. It's the same girl. I haven't changed, I've just grown."

But, she says, success and living in the spotlight have had their price. She and husband Brown have been frequent tabloid fodder over the years for rumored domestic troubles and his scrapes with the law. Most recently, he served five days in Broward County (Fla.) jail last month for two counts of driving under the influence stemming from a January incident. A judge ordered him to spend 30 days at an in-patient substance-abuse treatment center after it was found he was intoxicated when he arrived at jail to serve his sentence. He checked himself into a center in Minnesota three weeks ago.

Little strife in life

But despite his troubles and media reports to the contrary, Houston says their marriage is strong, they love each other deeply, and their families have close relationships. She's says her life has nowhere near the constant strife the press intimates.

"I guess it would be terrible if we really lived that way," says Houston. "If it were halfway true, we would be really exciting people and should do our own soap opera. They portray him as a man who puts his hands on me, and that's something he's never done in his entire life.

"They talk about him as this man who has always been a womanizer, and I always see the ladies walk up on him. He's a gentleman. A cordial kind of guy. Bobby's a sexy kind of guy and I don't mind him looking as long as he knows where home is. I look, too."

Houston, who says she'd like to have a baby boy — "a Brown Bomber" — brightens when talk turns to the subject of her daughter, Bobbi Kristina. The 5-year-old's voice can be heard briefly on the new album's title song.

"We were in the studio with Wyclef and she just said, 'Mommy, I want to sing,' " Houston says. "Wyclef was quiet for a minute, and then nodded his head and said, 'That can work.'"

By Steve Jones, USA TODAY

12 November 1998



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