The four-year wait between 2002's Just Whitney and her previous album, 1998's My Love Is Your Love, was half that between that record and its predecessor, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight, but it felt twice the length, since Whitney Houston's career nose-dived during those four years. She retreated from the spotlight and as she cancelled concerts, scrapped albums, and pulled out of public appearances, rumors swirled that she and husband Bobby Brown were dangerously addicted to drugs. Following a disastrous performance at the September 2001 Michael Jackson tribute concert, where she looked as if she had already wasted away, the chattering reached a fever pitch and she needed to restore her reputation -- hence the title of Just Whitney, an assertion that she's returning to her basics. But that's not the half of it. As her trainwreck interview with Diane Sawyer on PrimeTime Live the week prior to Just Whitney's release proved, she's arrogantly defensive about her "bad habits" and is "Unashamed" of "the life that [she] leads," as she sings on the eighth song on this odd, disarmingly brief (under 40 minutes) self-styled comeback album. Just listen to the first single, the roundly ignored "Whatchulookinat" (produced by husband Brown, who Whitney thanks for being the best producer in the world, although he only helmed this track on the album), where she plays the victim, claiming that the gossip-mongers "messing with my reputation/ain't you got no education...don't even have a clue about what I'm facin'," coming across as if she had something to hide. It's a sentiment that runs throughout the album -- phrases like "you don't know what I'm goin' through" and "you criticize my actions/even though you don't stand in my shoes" pop up regularly -- and undermines an album that's otherwise a not-bad set of contemporary soul. Certainly, Whitney is in better voice than rival diva Mariah Carey (whose near simultaneously released Charmbracelet found her voice in tatters) and she's fortunate enough to have Babyface for four productions, three of which are among the highlights of the album. Though Missy Elliott produces a track here, this is nowhere near as concerned with hip production as My Love was and who can blame her? When a career is on the rocks, it's best to play it safe. And that's what Just Whitney is: a measured attempt to salvage a career that's on the verge of destruction. Does it work? Well, musically, it's not bad, though few songs are memorable. It would be a good standard-issue Whitney album if it wasn't for her disarming, defensive attempt to defuse every rumor hurled in her direction. Even an otherwise innocuous duet with Brown is presented like it's the two of them against the world, nearly celebrating the fact that Bobby's voice is very strained these days. Worst of all, there seems to be nobody to check Whitney and prevent her from indulging in bad ideas. After all, surely somebody in the Houston camp should have realized that at this crucial time in her career, as she admits drug "habits," that covering "You Light Up My Life" might not be the smartest move to make right now.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: Bobby Brown