Welcome back to TGJ Replay!
Designed much like our ‘Retro Rewind’ and ‘From the Vault’ features, ‘Replay’ is That Grape Juice‘s newest reflective segment to act as a written quest, if you will, to re-spin the gems and jams of yesterday. Unlike its retrospective predecessors, ‘Replay’ looks to dust off and showcase entire albums (and eras) from a library of pop and Urban pop music hits.
Now, as fans ready themselves for the highly anticipated Whitney Houston made-for-TV biopic ‘Whitney’ (January 17th at 8/7c on Lifetime), there is no better time to ode the songstress than with today’s replay of her multiplatinum third album ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight.’
“The third album is probably always the hardest because people expect so much. [They say] the first one is ok, the second one was pretty good, but now what is she going to do for the third one? It’s always that expectation level that makes it hard to deal with. You want it to be accepted in the same way that the first and second one were.” – Whitney Houston, 1991
Join us as we travel back to 1990… It had to be something to be the anomaly of “Whitney Houston” in 1989.
For, with history books seemingly growing weary of etching the pop princess’s name along its pages for one reason or the other (see: besting The Beatles’ singles record with 7 consecutive #1 singles, best-selling debut album by a female artist at the time, sophomore album becoming first female album ever to debut at #1, etc.), Houston, affectionately known as Nippy, was learning the hard way that success was a double edged sword. Not only was the powerhouse vocalist grappling with having to meet or exceed the whopping worldwide sales of her first two efforts (‘Whitney Houston’ – 25 million, ‘Whitney’ – 20 million) and the evolution of and growing need for music videos (a format she never exactly clung to like her less vocally talented, chart-topping counterparts), but 1989 would bring with it glaring proof of the growing distance between herself and the “Urban” audience.
Indeed, two back to back unceremonious jeerings at the ’88 and ’89 Soul Train Awards signified to most that the audience had grown weary of Nippy’s soaring gospel-like vocal displays boarding fluffy “white” pop numbers. The incidents are credited by most as the catalyst for the sonic direction of her third album.
(See Whitney address the incidents in an Arsenio Hall interview below at 3:18)
Much like pop/R&B counterpart Janet Jackson, the powerhouse singer’s third album would finally see her gain ‘control’ as it marked the first time her handler, Clive Davis, would allow her more creative command over her image, sound, and overall product. Still under his guidance, however, the two would tap Luther Vandross, L.A. Reid, and Babyface to steer the album’s sonic direction down more rhythmic avenues. Combining elements of pop, jazz, new jack swing, R&B, and hip hop, the collection of tunes would primarily see Houston travel terrains of sound her two previous efforts hadn’t dared as, for the first time, her name was listed as “co-songwriter” and “producer” on album credits.
But, for safe measure (as the majority of Whit’s hits were ballads), Davis ensured the inclusion of work from previous producers Narada Michael Walden and Michael Masser to assist audiences with transitioning to this ‘new Whitney’ without alienating fans of her power ballads ‘Greatest Love of All,’ ‘Where Do Broken Hearts Go,’ and more.
The outcome of this venture? ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight.’
Fall 1990 would introduce fans to the “new Whitney” with the release of the album’s L.A. Reid & Babyface-produced title track.
With an instantly recognizable, Michael Jackson-esque intro in tow, the song would dethrone Mariah Carey‘s ‘Love Takes Time’ and blare its way to #1 on the Hot 100 and ‘Hot R&B’ charts in just six weeks on the wings of strong radio airplay and one of Houston’s most conceptually driven music videos ever. Arguably feeling the pressure to compete with fellow pop titans’ (Madonna, Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, George Michael) manipulation of the evolving format, ‘Tonight’s visual accompaniment would see the songstress travel through time to ode her musical influences. Nodding to the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Diana Ross, and more, the video would symbolize a farewell to the gown-donning balladress of the 80’s fans had grown to love to greet a “hip, 90s Whitney” with ripped jeans and leather jacket to boot.
Landing her 8th #1, the song’s chart performance would ease label fears that revamping the singer’s image was a wrong move…to some degree. Its short tenure on the chart’s perch, followed by the album’s #3 peak on the Billboard 200, led Davis and co. to go back to Houston’s tried and true formula; ballads.
Tapping her remake of the early 80s, Linda Clifford hit ‘All the Man That I Need’ as ‘Tonight’s follow-up, fans not so keen on Houston’s updated sonic approach would fall in love all over again.
Talk about a knockout performance!
Decorated with a stunning crescendo of Whitney’s emotional vocal delivery, assortment of strings, and a high-spirited choir, the song – despite growing opposition from Carey – would reassert the singer’s position as the era’s premier balladress.
Giving the powerhouse her second #1 single from this album and 9th overall, the song would mark her first time reigning atop the Hot 100, ‘Hot R&B,’ and ‘Adult AC’ charts simultaneously.
At the rate the 90s was shaping up, by 1991 Whitney looked to be well on her way to dominating the decade much like she did the 80s. Though her bad girl image would find boosts from reports of diva behavior, photos of her smoking cigarettes, updated wardrobe, and a timely relationship with R&B bad boy Bobby Brown making its waves across the rumor mills and headlines, Houston was very much still ‘America’s Sweetheart.’ The status of such was undoubtedly cemented when she took to Superbowl XXV to perform the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ We use the term “perform” lightly.
Particularly emotional for some fans as the U.S. was at the genesis of the Persian Gulf War, the singer took to the field to lend such a heart-tugging rendition of the U.S. national anthem that it would not only be received with thunderous applause from the audience in attendance, but it would literally become the standard for every single act that has dared to attempt it after. In fact, the response was so overwhelming that Houston’s record label home, Arista Records, granted her version “single status” and donated all proceeds to charity.
Despite the “lip syncing scandal” that ensued, the tune’s performance on charts delivered her highest single debut at the time (at #32 on Hot 100) and would peak at #20. Scanning over 750,000 purchases in 8 days, at a time where singles were not digitally downloaded for $.99 a pop, the song would become Arista’s fastest selling single for quite some time.
Special note: Whitney’s version recharted in 2001 and would make her the first and only singer in history to make the song a Top 10 hit.
The overwhelming wave of publicity following her U.S. national anthem performance did not deter her attention from celebrating her first album of creative control, however. Going back to ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight,’ Davis and co. would follow-up ‘All The Man That I Need’ with the ballad ‘Miracle’ (#9 Hot 100 peak), new jack swing jam ‘My Name Is Not Susan’ (#20 Hot 100 peak), ‘I Belong To You,’ and Stevie Wonder duet ‘We Didn’t Know.’
Though each single following ‘All the Man That I Need’ would perform worse than its predecessor, the ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ era did little to stunt the growth of Houston’s social status. With monumental moments like Superbowl XXV, the ensuing ‘Welcome Home Heroes’ HBO concert special, and a supporting world tour to keep her name in mention, by the time the dust settled the album still managed to shift a whopping 12 million worldwide. Granted, the numbers paled in comparison to her two previous efforts, but the era would only act as a stepping stone to her career’s shining achievement…‘The Bodyguard’ movie and accompanying soundtrack.
On the awards tip, the album landed Grammy ‘Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female’ nods for ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ (1991) and ‘All the Man That I Need’ (1992), 1993 ‘Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female’ Grammy nod (‘I Belong To You’), and American Music Award nods, but no wins.
‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ is unforgivably the least celebrated album of Whitney Houston’s prime. A shame, let us tell it, because it gave the songstress so many “firsts”: first time she really began to own her sexuality, first venture into unadulterated R&B devoid of pop flavouring or undertone, and the first time she took the driver’s seat to have a “say so” in how she was represented. It was the beginning of the derailment of Houston’s pristine image and, ultimately, we liked it for what it was supposed to be until it got out of control.
It’s obvious, in part, the era’s overall purpose was to “modernize” the former pop princess to go toe to toe with her fellow pop titans as proof of this could be argued with the increased intensity of choreography in her music videos & staging as well as her updated wardrobe and downplay of ballads. Yet, instead of helping her “keep up,” the era only helped distinguish her more from the Madonna’s and Janet’s of the day by adding a spice of diversity that, let us tell it, was lost again when Davis helmed ‘The Bodyguard’ soundtrack offerings.
Either way, IYBT is an absolute gem. Hey, we still get our groove on at TGJ HQ with ‘Lover For Life’ and ‘Takin A Chance,’ but you tell us: