When it was released on June 2, 1987, Whitney wasn’t exactly praised by the press. The album, the second album from singer Whitney Houston, received a lot of comparisons to her first album, Whitney Houston. Whitney was seen as Houston bringing nothing new to the table, staying within the range established by her first album. Critics from The Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times criticized the lack of depth in the songs and in Houston’s vocals. And honestly? I can see some of that. Songs like “You’re Still My Man,” “Where You Are,” and “Love Will Save the Day” are 1980s album filler that doesn’t really bring much to the table. But where Whitney excels, it excels.
The album’s best known for its first single “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” arguably one of Houston’s most famous songs. It’s pop perfection. “Dance” is five minutes of bubbly fun, a beautifully bright song that does exactly what it needs to do. Houston wants to dance with somebody and the song is just so infectious that it makes you feel like you want to dance as well. It’s such a well-crafted song: each second of those five minutes is perfectly crafted so that despite the fact that the song is kind of long, it doesn’t feel it in the slightest. That key change around the three minute mark and Houston giving it all on the final “don’t you want to dance” is just a cherry on top. The video is likewise pop perfection: it’s bright and neon, with day-glo eyeshadow and neon backgrounds, visuals that perfectly match the feel of the song. Both song and video are veeeeery much products of the time, but that doesn’t make them any less amazing and any less catchy.
Whitney also lets Houston embrace a stronger side. While “Dance” is undoubtedly the most famous song off the album, there are two other contenders for the Houston greatest hits collection: “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.” Both are wonderfully dramatic power ballads, with key changes every minute or so and the opportunity for Houston to inject so much pathos and melodrama in every word.
Whitney Houston goes peak Whitney Houston in both ballads, showing off her range and her voice as she belts the final choruses with technical precision, effortlessly hitting those high notes and proving her status in the pantheon of pop divas. This is Houston bringing the power, showing off just how powerful and amazing her voice is, despite the fact that the songs themselves are kind of cheesy: most notably “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” a cornball Frank Wildhorn penned song that Houston herself initially didn’t want to record. Still, she sells it, pouring emotion, technique, and sheer POWER into the song, propelling it all the way to the top of the charts. It wasn’t the song itself that helped get it that far–it was Houston’s delivery that made people stand up and take notice.
Perhaps the song that best sums up my response the album is “I Know Him So Well.” It needs to be stated again that Houston was just a SINGER, not a singer-songwriter. Her job is to take previously written material and sell it, making the song a Whitney Houston song instead of a whoever-wrote-it song. Here we have her and her mother Cissy Houston covering an already-established song: “I Know Him So Well” is from the musical Chess, written by Tim Rice and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba fame, originally sung by Elaine Page and Barbara Dickson. The technical precision on “why am I falling apart” and the last chorus is downright astonishing. Both Houstons effortlessly make the song their own, adding in a few typical Whitney Houston flourishes while staying true to the original spirit of the song.
That’s why Whitney still remains essential listening for any fans of Houston or any fans of 1980s pop music in general. Yes, the album is uneven as hell. But thanks to Houston’s technical prowess, amazing voice, and ability to downright sell a song, when Whitney is good, it’s absolutely amazing.