As the Thunderpuss remix of Whitney Houston’s womanist anthemgay-boy club classic, “It‘s Not Right, but It’s Okay,” blasted through the speakers one recent night at La Plaza, the largely Latino queer crowd went wild, throwing their arms in the air and turning toward the stage in anticipation of drag-queen heaven. When a fierce Latin she-male finally took the stage, decked out in a see-through pantsuit and a flawless replica of the wig that Whitney wears on the cover of her new CD, Just Whitney, the Behind the Music realness that she served floated right over the audience‘s uncomprehending heads. Pressing her eyelids tightly together as though it pained her to think, wobbling slightly in her heels and wearing a glazed look in her eyes — all while intentionally flubbing her lip-synching — the faux Whitney quickly transformed the ecstatic crowd into a still-life painting. This was not the diva of their dreams, the one who has inspired hairbrush-microphone concerts in the privacy of bedrooms. This was the Whitney of tabloids and rumor, the one who recently stared down Diane Sawyer with the not-so-subtle implication that she wanted to kick Sawyer’s ass, dismissing speculation on her drug of choice with the ready-made sound bite “Crack is wack.” (Within days of the interview‘s television broadcast, a bootleg DVD of it was being hawked on eBay.) That the faux femme at La Plaza brilliantly, mercilessly captured this ragged incarnation of Houston scored her no points with the faithful.

Dubbed dead before it even hit shelves, Just Whitney is nowhere near the disaster that many have claimed. It’s easily the second best overall effort of Houston‘s career (coming in right behind 1998’s admittedly sleeker, relatively baggage-free My Love Is Your Love, with which it shares roughly the same ratio of gems to duds). Even more easily, Whitney trumps other recent (and for the most part critically and commercially disappointing) comeback attempts by such R&B stalwarts as Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Deborah Cox and TLC. These are truly hard times for divas.

The first lie to put to rest is that Whitney‘s voice is shot; it’s not. No, it doesn‘t have the startling purity or far-reaching range that it once did, but so what? It now has character and shading. Forced to root around inside her own shit in order to deliver a line, she’s no longer able to coast on her jaw-dropping technique and crystalline instrument — and she‘s a far more interesting singer because of that. Check the gossamer hoarseness with which she croons the album’s best track, the Missy Elliott–produced and –co-written “Things You Say.” In mood, arrangement and production, Missy and Whitney flawlessly channel the longing ballads of the ‘70s-era Isley Brothers (who are also sampled on the underrated single, “One of Those Days”). And for those who absolutely demand it, she can still belt as powerfully on saccharine bullshit as anyone around, as she amply demonstrates on the Babyface-produced bit of I’mmon luv myself treacle, “Try It on My Own.” She shines on giddily disposable tracks like “Love That Man,” where she evokes up-tempo tunes from her pop-princess past like “How Will I Know” and “So Emotional,” and on the duet “My Love,” where she and husband Bobby “King of R&B” Brown drop-kick naysayers with a joyous back-and-forth that declares their devotion to each other.

That Whitney feels under attack is apparent from a quick scan of the CD‘s track listing — “Tell Me No,” “Unashamed,” “Whatchulookinat.” Throughout are lyrics that drip with defiance and defensiveness (“You criticize my actionsBut I don’t see you standing in my shoesI‘m ’going the wrong way‘I’m ‘doing the wrong things’Every word just gives me fuel”). Even the album‘s moments of levity (“Love That Man,” “One of Those Days”) are grounded in retort. Just Whitney comes hard with autobiography from a woman whose song choices have often seemed coldly removed from anything she really cared about. (This airing of her psyche backfires only once, on the album’s failed first single, “Whatchulookinat,” where Bobby Brown‘s spoken intro — “It’s time for you to strike backThey‘re lookin’ at you . . . They‘re watching your every move” — plays like the paranoid brain farts of, well, a crackhead.)

Like Michael Jackson, another diva on the moist side of a meltdown, Whitney Houston has seemingly taken her cues from the old-school handbook: She’s very Judy Garland these days. But as with that patron saint of the drugged and resilient, Houston‘s recent travails have added pathos to her voice, grit to the material she applies it to. On “One of Those Days,” when she moans, “You don’t know what I‘ve been going through,” the song leaps beyond its work-sucks-the-rent’s-late-I-need-a-date griping into the realm of existential letting. It‘s in the voice.

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