'I Look To You' Album Playback, 14 July 2009...

I've put down some thoughts and observations from yesterday's album playback for Whitney Houston's "I Look To You" set. The invitation card (very smart black envelope with silver internal lining and the main card plain black with silver lettering) cites the event at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel as "the world premiere of the new Whitney Houston album 'I Look To You'. The sectioned off ballroom was packed with at least a couple of hundred people from the label and media - Clive mentioned that some 28 countries were represented yesterday from the world's media.

I'm working mostly from memory and when you go from being presented two leaked songs over the past year to another seven, it's a lot to take in - especially for a 'hardcore' fan of Whitney's music. You'll have to forgive me if I don't have all the insights you may expect, but I'll do my best here to give you a flavour of what I experienced and heard. We each receive Whitney Houston's music differently and one man's favourite song leaves another cold or wanting. Our individual appreciation of Whitney's music is what makes being a fan of Whitney's varied catalogue interesting.

Even before the event started, a gentleman (not sure who) came on to introduce Clive. Before doing so, he made it really clear that this was the first hearing of some of Whitney's new album, that some of it was so new that it had only been recorded within the week, that this was a very early press preview and that for those reasons the use of recording equipment of any kind was prohibited. Even going as far as encourage people to stop people around them that may be recording. A couple of journalists that sat a few seats down from me were removed for using their laptops to type up their reviews (obviously to be sure they were not recording the event).

Clive opened and hosted the entire event with Whitney appearing right at the very end. Throughout, Clive would talk about the songs, present some insight into them and then sit down again on the stage where he'd often be grooving along to the music. It's really interesting to see this legend in his own right enjoy and love what he does so much.

Clive started by talking about Whitney from a detached media perspective which I thought was really clever - he mentioned that this was an "artist that had not recorded in a number of years", that he had "not worked with Whitney in 10 years". He touched on how the media were questioning this almost unknown artist now about what her voice would be like now and if she could still sing. Clive's opening was fairly long and almost a lesson for the media in Rock & Roll journalism. He focused on the point about journalists pre-occupation with producing music reviews that have rock credibility and leaving pop sounds wanting for journalist review acceptance. Clive underscored the point that this was an early listening event and that they were not finished with putting the album together. Some of the songs were recorded as recently as last Friday night/Saturday morning and were in their unfinished format (some in MP3, some yet to have their final mix).

The issue of Whitney not writing her own songs was addressed upfront when Clive talked about Whitney coming to him in the 80s and pondering if she should write her own material because Madonna and Janet had started to. Clive did say he would not hold anyone back from their dreams, but he stopped short of saying song writing was not Whitney's forte. Instead, Clive focused on the songs and talked about the "great vocal tradition…." citing Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne, and about "songs that stand for an era". Clive listed a number of Whitney's classics and called them the "soundtrack of many people's lives".

Of interest was how Clive talked about these songs and his presentation of them not coming from a business/entertainment perspective but "from the heart", that the project was a "labour of love".

Clive showed a short video - the "Superstar" one that features at whitneyhouston.com although it was slightly different in that it had inserted sections of moments of history - her first Grammy, various awards and performances. It really did work to create energy and hype and got the waiting audience enthusiastically applauding.

Once the music started, it came in fairly quick succession. It was like being thrown onto a speeding roller coaster - the music was loud and unapologetic. It gave me a real head rush trying to process everything I was hearing.

Before he played the first song, Clive talked about it and how it come about 4/5 tracks into the creation of the album. He talked about the pre-Grammy party performance and how the audience were waiting in anticipation and the night got later and Whitney came on stage about 12:20am - but that they stayed because it was Whitney and how Jamie Foxx was videoing it, Jennifer Hudson was referenced…as was Alicia Keys. It seemed that was the point Alicia Keys had talked about finding it hard to write songs for herself let alone anyone else but this seemed to be the night to convince her to do it….

Million Dollar Bill
Written by Alicia Keys, Produced by Swizz Beatz (?)

Million Dollar Bill is a feel good song, up-tempo and heavy beat/bass line. The vocal reminded me of an early Whitney with the overall song having a mixed 80s sensibility, but still current.

Nuthin' But Love

Written by Frannie Goldie/KC Livingston (?not sure about this), Produced by Danja

This song was unfinished - but played all the way through. It was finished 2/3 days ago and had just come in for the event. The song was up-tempo and had a nice urgency about it.

Call You Tonight

Written by Johnta Austin, Produced by Stargate

I remember this being more up-tempo than mid-tempo (a la the youtube demo). Whitney had a crisp vocal delivery to it. Clive mentioned this was being considered for the first single. I think I recall him saying something along the lines of "certainly for the US" which may be suggested he was looking for a reaction to how Europe/rest of the world might receive it. The song got a great reception and I recall Clive studying the audience back to see if that was the approval he was looking for.

I Didn't Know My Own Strength

Written by Diane Warren, Produced by David Foster

Clive talked about 'I Didn't Know My Own Strength' at some length and quoted Whitney from a recent interview she'd done as her feeling "Inspired…wasn't just thinking of myself with this song….[she was] for the first time a single mom….thought of people who struggle." Clive seemed to suggest he was more sold on the song than Whitney initially, that it wasn't until she went into the recording booth and started to sing the song herself that it resonated with her.

Clive has been in London a few days and was at the theatre a few days ago when the lady next to him recognised him and got his attention. He mused about how this girl had heard the song via youtube, but then talked about how she'd articulated to him about what the song meant to her. He said he was quoting her directly and not embellishing her words. It is clear that Clive loves this song a LOT and there are some high expectations associated with it in terms of what it could mean for Whitney.

What I heard was very similar to what was leaked - the chocolatey vocals are there; the production seemed fuller and at the end there is perhaps a slightly extended adlib ahead of the song finishing.

Like I Never Left

Written by Claude Kelly & Akon, Produced by Akon

Whitney had called Clive and said she'd like an Island song for her album. That was where this song then originates. The song remains a duet with Akon and I wasn't certain if Whitney's vocal had changed on it. What was different was the production which had more backing vocals added and towards the end there are one or two relatively long high notes from Whitney added to what seemed like an extended adlib to close the song.

For The Lovers
Written by Claude Kelly (?), Produced by Danja

This song was recorded/finished Friday night/Saturday morning. The song has an urgent up-tempo vibe, Whitney's vocal is crisp and to the point, the song has a line urging "so throw your hands up…". This might well be my favourite song of the night based on one listen - it had me very excited to hear it again. Really loved it.

I Look To You

Written by R Kelly, Produced by Harvey Mason & Tricky Stewart

Clive had put this song on hold for 3 years. I recall a mention of him saying it was the first verse and chorus he'd put on hold - not sure if that meant he'd asked for some level of re-write. Both he and Whitney were agreed that this would be the title of the album and again, he quoted Whitney directly: "[I Look To You] spiritually says all I want to say….reach for a higher strength and go beyond your own understanding….".

The production on this song was not finished. The song is piano driven with Whitney presented vocally in a similar way to how she sounds on 'I Didn't Know My Own Strength' - the vocals were chocolately. I'm keen to hear the finished version of the song. I think we've known R Kelly's version for some time so hearing Whitney on it now takes a little adjustment, especially going from a male vocal to a female…at times I got a sense Whitney's vocal was a little speeded up here - but I'm not sure if that was the unfinished production or my untrained ear.

Worth It

Written by Johnta Austin, Produced by Eric Hudson

I'd describe this as a mid-tempo jam. Clive talked about how the song has 2 hooks and that the song was being presented on MP3 rather than finished format, but that the finished sound was "quite compelling". Clive seemed to underscore that this song takes a few listens to appreciate. It's a good song and one that would grow on you as you get into everything that it has going on (it's not too busy - maybe the 2 hooks make it a more complex structure). The verses tended to start with "This is for the lovers…." And I remember being left with that on first play. Good stuff.

A Song For You
Written by Leon Russell, Produced by Stargate

The song and the producer should make you stop and ponder. Clive and Whitney had talked about which song Whitney had wanted to cover but hadn't done so. She chose 'A Song For You'. Clive presented the song stating that the 2nd half of the song was not complete (although what was played was a full song - so I don't know if there is production or vocal work to be done on it still). The song starts in the traditional way that we all know. Whitney has a crisp vocal delivery to it…the song then pumps up into a dance anthem of sorts. I do need to hear it again as I was a little bit surprised. It does work - and it was really well received.

As the song was faded out, Whitney Houston walked into the room to an extended standing ovation. She was gracious in accepting her applause and after a moment, took the mike on centre stage to talk. There were funny moments - such as when she dropped some candy that she really wanted and picked it up off stage and handed it to her team side stage.

An even funnier moment came when Whitney talked about how she and Clive had a moment where they'd clashed and he was exasperated enough to say to her she was "the most impossible person [he'd] ever worked with". Whitney said she was a little taken aback and challenged him saying "you've worked with all these other people and I'm the most impossible?!"…"Yes!" would be Clive reply…to which (as you can probably imagine), Whitney said she "was honoured" to take that from Clive. It got a good laugh in the room.

Insightful moments came from Whitney talking about her plans (before recording the album) to go away on island with her daughter (I'm sure she referenced selling strawberries for a living?). Insightful because it speaks in a consistent way of Whitney's desire to step away but really knowing that she can't.

It also stuck with me when Whitney talked about how she hoped "that these songs stay with you for a lifetime."

Whitney thanked everyone and left soon after for press photos.

I think when I reflect on what I've heard - and remember, it's almost an entire album with just one listen - I was a little bit floored, a lot excited, very hopeful and encouraged and inspired. There's some really good stuff happening here. What I loved the most was that this is shaping up to be everything Clive has suggested it would be - a classic Whitney album. It's not about the current trend or sound, it's not a Darkchild or Babyface CD…it's really a Whitney Houston album blending influences from her own past and in some ways, she's in the process of finishing an album that seems like it can stand up against what's happening in music today and be timeless with it. Again, as Whitney said herself, she wanted the songs to stay with us for a lifetime. That's got to be a great goal to have for an album.

Briefly - Clive was very gracious after the event when I met him and kind enough to pose for a photo. He came across really warm/kind for the few moments I managed to get his time amongst the numbers of record execs that seemed to jostle for his time.

Whitney was gracious when I met her a little later on - a nudge by her team also got me a "Happy Birthday" amongst a few other comments so that was cool.





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