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[From Billboard]

Arista Aims New Houston Album At 'Core Urban' Fans
By GAIL MITCHELL
December 14, 2002

While recording the first album after signing her new $100 million Arista contract, Whitney Houston says she sought to create "a positive, feel-good, very soul-oriented album, something I felt was missing. I hear a lot of things on the radio, but I don't hear any R&B songs with a bold, new flavor . . . songs you can sing along to and love the melody. That's what I was looking for."

That rhythmic quest has yielded Just Whitney . . . , which will hit U.S. stores Tuesday (10). While her previous studio album, the 1998 set My Love Is Your Love, found the crossover diva dabbling in hip-hop and reggae, Just Whitney . . . takes a decidedly more R&B approach. It's a back-to-basics direction sought by Arista Records president/CEO Antonio "L.A." Reid.

"We really wanted to re-establish a core urban base for Whitney," Reid says. "It was important to do that, because for an artist of her caliber, it's easy to get lost and start to not pay attention or understand the value in our core urban market. That's so key for her. It's not like it once was: We made records that were black pop for years. And now that same black pop doesn't work. If you look at black artists with success, you find they're making music for their core and not necessarily designed for the masses."

To reach that core, Arista is working the commercial single "One of Those Days" to urban, rhythmic, and pop radio. Utilizing the melody from the Isley Brothers' top-five 1983 R&B hit "Between the Sheets," the midtempo, Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs-produced tune is No. 35 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles & Tracks chart and No. 94 on The Billboard Hot 100.

The new album marks several milestones for Houston. In addition to it being her first studio album in four years and the first under a renewed contract, Just Whitney . . . is Houston's first album without mentor Clive Davis. It is also a reunion with Reid, with whom she worked briefly on the 1995 Waiting to Exhale soundtrack and extensively on the 1990 R&B-oriented I'm Your Baby Tonight. Key in crafting the new album was how the two worked together on overall direction and song selection.

"This was a very loose process," Houston says. "With Clive, I was used to getting the song and knowing what I was going to do on a day-to-day basis. This time I walked into the studios and listened to tracks. L.A. would recommend people and say, 'If you like it, I'll hook you up.' I really enjoyed the process, because I got some really great creative material that I probably wouldn't have gotten otherwise."

Reid says, "I asked her to go in and experiment with different producers, which is something she hadn't done in the past."

In addition to Briggs and Reid, Houston worked with such producer/songwriters as Missy Elliott (who contributed to Houston's My Love Is Your Love), Teddy Bishop, Gordon Chambers, Rob Fusari, Troy Taylor, and longtime collaborator Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. Guest artists include husband Bobby Brown (on the duet "My Love," their first since the 1992 song "Something in Common") and the Gold Mind/Elektra artist Tweet, who does background vocals with Houston on "Things You Say."

Aside from those two pairings, there are no major artist couplings la Houston's collaborations with Kelly Price and Faith Evans on "Heartbreak Hotel" (from My Love Is Your Love) or Deborah Cox on "Same Script, Different Cast" (Whitney: The Greatest Hits).

"We had ideas like that," Reid says. "However, I tend to shy away from too many duets and guests with artists, because I like to make sure when they make a record, they can support it when they go out and not be at the mercy of guest artists who can't be there to promote it."

There are a number of non-album projects that will pair Houston with other hot artists. Reid is working on a "One of Those Days" remix with Nelly, while Houston is recording a song with Brandy. Neither track is slated to be on the new album, although Reid says of the Brandy pairing, "When it's finished, I'll find a home for it."

Reid is also considering using Santana on a single version of another album track, the rock-tinged "Tell Me No."

Like "Tell Me No," another song that seemingly belies the album's R&B direction is a remake of Debby Boone's 1977 hit, "You Light Up My Life." Given a gospel feel here by Babyface, the song was chosen for its appeal to Reid and Houston. "I know it goes against everything I'm saying," Reid says. "But this was just for the love of the song."

Assertive Themes

Although Houston describes all of her albums as "very personal; whatever song I put my voice on is with a full-heartedness that I give to every album," it is difficult to ignore the assertiveness that runs through nearly half of the album on such tracks as "Tell Me No," "Try It on My Own," "My Love," and "Unashamed."

Then there is the Brown- and Muhammad 2G-produced "Whatchulookinat." Given a lukewarm reception by radio this summer, the song—which Houston co-wrote—chastises the media for its preoccupation with her private life and personal travails.

"We didn't go the distance with that song the way we are with 'One of Those Days' in terms of a full throttle at radio and a video [which was only released overseas]," Reid says. "We abandoned it early on, because public reception wasn't great."

For her part, Houston says the reaction is "what I wanted it to get. It's sassy and elegant and says what I've been asking for a long time. I mean, come on now. Enough is enough."

Beyond "Whatchulookinat," it is no secret that Just Whitney . . . has encountered other obstacles before reaching the starting gate. The project's release date has been delayed several times, and word recently came that the album, recorded in Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, and New Jersey, had been leaked to the Internet. But unlike his decision to retool Usher's latest album because of Internet leaks, Reid opted to press ahead.

"While I'm not happy with bootlegging or pirating, I don't think it will hurt sales for this album," Reid says. "I'm hoping people will listen and want to buy the album. I also just felt it was time to move forward. Whitney's timing is good, and she's in great voice and spirits right now. The album has been done for quite some time, and I'd delayed it several times already."

The daughter of gospel/R&B singer Cissy Houston, Houston began honing her award-winning vocals in church. In addition to accompanying her mother in concert, she provided backup for such artists as Lou Rawls and Chaka Khan. A guest stint on Teddy Pendergrass' 1984 top five R&B hit "Hold Me" was followed a year later by her first No. 1 R&B/No. 3 pop single, "You Give Good Love."

Under the tutelage of then-Arista chief Davis—who signed her to the label—Houston went on to score 11 No. 1 pop hits, six Grammy Awards, and enviable album sales for her studio and soundtrack efforts. Debut album Whitney Houston, released in 1985, stands at 13-times platinum, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America, followed by Whitney (1987) and I'm Your Baby Tonight (1990) at nine-times platinum and four-times platinum, respectively. The Bodyguard soundtrack (1992) has sold 11.7 million units, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But since that triumph, Houston's album sales have declined, with My Love Is Your Love coming in at 2.7 million units and Whitney: The Greatest Hits clocking in at 1.3 million.

More Marathon Than Sprint

While he wants to maximize sales in the competitive and crowded fourth quarter, Reid says he believes the new album will "perform more like a marathon than a sprint and be successful in the long term. This album isn't any contrived attempt to make an over-the-top pop record or try to live up to the past, in which she's had incredible success. It was about doing a record that reflects how she feels musically today and using songs she feels good about singing."

Whether all ears will be tuned to the album remains to be seen. But the label is hoping that many people will be focused on the music after tuning in to the Dec. 4 edition of ABC's Primetime Live, which featured a Diane Sawyer-hosted segment with Houston during which she attempts to set the record straight on many of her personal issues.

"We wanted to have major television exposure for the project," Arista executive VP Lionel Ridenour says. "After looking at all the options, this was the one she felt most comfortable with."

"There are so many fans around the world who love Whitney and have questions and concerns," Reid adds. "The only way to deal with it is to deal with it. You can't skate the issues. You must be upfront and real. We thought it was necessary for her and her fans. She needs to get on with her career, and she couldn't do that unless she had that conversation with someone."

The TV appearance helped kick off a series of consumer-oriented marketing events. Arista held listening and viewing parties across the country built around the Sawyer special, with host sites ranging from hair and nail salons to restaurants.

In another effort to generate awareness of the new album, radio stations across the country will be auctioning for charity Houston's designer duds from her My Love Is Your Love tour. Additionally, Arista is partnering with various trade organizations like the National Assn. of Automobile Dealerships to provide album samplers at various dealerships.

The label just announced a Sunday (8) free outdoor performance by Houston in the plaza at New York's Lincoln Center. The 3 p.m. ET mini-concert—during which she will sing three songs from the album—airs Tuesday (10) on ABC's Good Morning America.

Arista is also negotiating appearances on MTV's Total Request Live and BET's 106 & Park, as well as online chats and other appearances into 2003. While Ridenour says tour plans are down the road, Arista is organizing a "couple of major listening events that Whitney will participate in to help promote the project." Those markets will be announced shortly.

Just Whitney . . . was released internationally Nov. 25 to capitalize on Houston's Nov. 14 performance at the MTV Europe Awards in Barcelona. Additional marketing plans, including overseas engagements by Houston, are being discussed.

In the meantime, a limited-edition CD/DVD in a limited run of 132,000 units arrives in the U.S. the same day as the album. Priced at $22, it features two videos—for "Whatchulookinat" and "One of Those Days"—plus special artwork and a mega-mix of Houston's hit videos that also contains behind-the-scenes footage from the making of the "Whatchulookinat" videoclip.

Seeking The Definitive Album

With the Kevin Bray-directed video for "One of Those Days" in heavy rotation at BET, domestic reaction to the forthcoming album is mixed yet hopeful. "Retailers and consumers are still looking for that great, definitive new Whitney project: the project that will take us back to the superstar status that she has deservedly attained," says Dedry Jones, liaison for the Independent Music Group, a collective of 38 urban retailers. "There's hope that this new project will bring us back to the Whitney who is singing great songs. The first single put a lot of consumers off, but the second single gives people hope."

Noting that Internet leaks "haven't radically affected sales" on other albums at his chain, Virgin Entertainment Group senior VP of product and marketing Dave Alder says, "We think she's still got a core fan base who will come out and buy the record. It remains to be seen how much it will cross over to the mainstream."

Prognostications aside, Houston and Reid are looking ahead to more projects together. Calling herself a "gospel girl," Houston says she would like to do a gospel album at some point and more songwriting. Musically, for her it is—and always will be—about "carefully chosen and carefully felt songs. I have to feel it, love it, and live it. Music isn't supposed to bring you down; it's supposed to bring you up."

NEWSFILE: 6 DECEMBER 2002

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