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You Gotta Believe

Bobby was gonna teach her to sing the blues. That was the cruel prophecy-tucked-within-a-joke folks whispered when the buppie princess married the self-styled bad boy of R&B. He would guest-list his demons into their wedding chamber, and soon she'd be Dinah, Nina or Little Esther Phillips reborn.

It didn't quite work out that way. Because even though Whitney Houston's marriage to Bobby Brown brought intense speculation about her sexuality, rumors of spousal abuse (which she denies), tabloid catalogs of his affairs, vast media documentation of his numerous brushes with the law and -- most recently -- allegations of drug use by both, none of that was raw-gut enough to weaken Arista label honcho Clive Davis' soul-choking, viselike grip on Whitney's music. Her voice -- technically flawless, big and often bombastic -- was never allowed to betray a hint of human emotion, not so much as a vestige of real-life experience.

Her latest album, My Love Is Your Love, shows cracks in the veneer. Liner notes caution the listener, "The events & characters depicted in this album are fictitious, & any similarity to actual persons living or dead, or to actual events, is purely coincidental." It's a wry line. The humor comes not just from Houston's knowledge that songs about hurtful gossip, a cheating man, a brokenhearted woman and defiant declarations of love would be read as autobiographical, but from the way the disclaimer points the listener in that very direction. Half the album -- the dreary, lifeless Babyface-produced tracks -- needs Whitney to pimp her own bad press in order to be interesting. The other half -- tracks produced by Rodney Jerkins, Wyclef Jean and guest rapper Missy Elliott -- stands as the best work she's ever done.

Jerkins works the proto-house groove he crafted for Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine" for Houston on both the opening track, "It's Not Right But It's Okay," and "If I Told You That." The grooves are sassy, confident, full of street verve, qualities they also bring out in Whitney. Jerkins' co-production with Babyface of "I Bow Out" transforms what is basically a remake of the tepid Babyface-helmed Madonna hit, "Take a Bow," into a soulful, old-fashioned torcher. Wyclef's gorgeous handling of the reggae-tinged title cut renders it Whitney's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and Missy's funky, black-girl feminism ("In My Business," "Oh Yes") loosens Whitney's wig for a ghetto front-porch throw-down. Overall, her voice is huskier, textured with warmth and female knowingness.

So why come folks ain't feeling this record? Part of it is the disc's schizophrenia. It's disconcerting to go from the corporate death rattle of Whitney's duet with Mariah (on the godawful DreamWorks/ Prince of Egypt commercial "When You Believe") to hearing Missy rap, "Too many girls they dislike me/Since I got you/They wanna fight me/'Cause I'm the chick walkin' 'round/ With the ring/Tell me why these ho's they don't even like me . . ." In concession to Clive's demographic pandering, Whitney's foray into real R&B is a half-assed affair, alienating her longtime base of lip-synching suburban housewives and prissy queens without fully hooking the urban-youth audience.

The album's biggest obstacle, though, has been Houston herself. With every public appearance, she stokes the rumor mill. On Oprah, an MTV special, her recent VH1 and American Music Awards performances and so on, she's been vaguely somnambulant, amused at some private joke, laughing too long/loud/hard, and sweating buckets, clutching a little balled-up rag in her hand to mop her streaming face. The energy she now exudes is best summed up as controlled chaos. Though she's repeatedly denied drug use, what was once mere industry gossip has now spilled into the public domain and made folks back away from her and her record. For many artists, the suggestion of pharmaceutical indulgence wouldn't put a dent in their popularity. (Gimme some mo'.) For the former princess of whitebread, even the whisper is a violation of the contract.

What's fairly obvious is how whatever is going on with Whitney has filtered into her music, making her own boredom with sappy ballads palpable and her natural affinity for scrappy R&B a revelation. The Whitney EP (what you're left with once you subtract the worthless parts) is an obvious turning point in her music, image and connection with her fans -- and not necessarily in ways she or Clive intended. But it's that very unpredictability, the sense that something not easily boxed, sold or contained (and that doesn't give a fuck about chart positions) has seized her, that's finally made Whitney -- for better or worse -- an interesting figure in pop music.

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