After the massive success of her 1985 self-titled debut, a sophomore slump might have seemed inevitable for Whitney Houston. But with Whitney — released 30 years ago today — the late pop superstar met the near-impossible expectations by producing another multiplatinum smash that spawned four No. 1 singles, earned an Album of the Year Grammy nomination and cemented her place as the Voice of her generation. (And how could we forget that iconic album cover shot by Richard Avedon?) In honor of the anniversary, EW ranks all 11 tracks on this vintage Houston LP.
11. “Love Is a Contact Sport”
If one of the knocks against Whitney is that it sucked too much soul out of the singer — trading the R&B heart of her debut album for pop-blockbuster whitewashing — then this song is the most damning evidence of that. There is a moldy ’80s cheesiness to this bubblegum exercise that makes it now sound as dated as those shoulder pads that Houston rocked back in the day.
10. “Where You Are”
Eighties R&B artist Kashif — who, as one of the producers behind Whitney Houston, gave us “You Give Good Love” — returned for her second effort with this less memorable contribution. While it’s another lush, classy ballad, it lacks the soulful sensuality of its predecessor.
9. “For the Love of You”
Houston had already crushed some covers on her first album — including both “Saving All My Love for You” and “Greatest Love of All” — and would later go on to slay her version of “I Will Always Love You.” This remake of the 1975 Isley Brothers classic is, indeed, “smoother than a gentle breeze.” Although it doesn’t match the heights of her best covers, it still underlines the strength of her interpretive skills.
8. “I Know Him So Well”
Whitney ends with a tonal twist on this mother-daughter duet featuring Cissy Houston. While this number, taken from the musical Chess, comes a bit out of left field, it’s a full-circle moment that shows exactly where the younger Houston came from. Their knowing interplay — pitting the gleaming polish of Whitney against the lived-in texture of Cissy — reveals the two’s soulful bond.
Although this ballad went on to become her seventh consecutive No. 1 single, Houston did not initially want to record it, but her mentor and then-label chief Clive Davis convinced her to do it anyway. And even if Whitney’s heart wasn’t all the way in it, she still rises above with some fireworks.
6. “You’re Still My Man”
After helming “Saving All My Love for You,” “Greatest Love of All,” “All at Once” and “Hold Me” on Houston’s debut, producer Michael Masser penned this torch song with legendary lyricist Gerry Goffin. In a lesser singer’s hands, this tune might have fallen flat, but Houston elevates the material with a towering vocal that pierces the sky.
For the most part, Whitney is short on nuance, but this silky, jazz-kissed pillow-talker showcases Houston as a subtle master of seduction. Building her vocal from a kittenish coo to a take-no-mess belt, she demonstrates an emotional and stylistic range to match her technical one.
Masser was once again behind the boards for this titanic ballad, which the producer co-wrote with “My Heart Will Go On” lyricist Will Jennings. It soared all the way to No. 1 and nabbed a Song of the Year Grammy nomination. Yes, it’s a chest-beater that practically pummels you into submission, but Houston’s force-of-nature vocal — especially when she hits the bridge — captures the diva at the peak of her powers.
3. “So Emotional”
One of seven Whitney tracks produced by Narada Michael Walden, this No. 1 single was co-written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, the tunesmiths behind other ’80s smashes like Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” and Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” While this is more pop perfection, Houston also musters up some funky grit over the insistent groove, bringing a little soul to the sheen.
Houston’s streak of No. 1 hits may have ended with this single, but it is one of the best dance tracks of her career. One of the rare cuts in her catalog that approaches being a message song, it also shakes things up lyrically on Whitney. Over some percolating, Latin-spiced beats produced by ’80s New York DJ legend John “Jellybean” Benitez, Houston takes it to church as she delivers spiritual catharsis in the club. It never fails to lift you up “when you’re feeling down and out.”
There’s no doubt that this album’s first single blatantly copied the chart-topping formula of “How Will I Know” from Houston’s debut — it even employed the same producer (Walden) and two of the same writers (George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam). But what this irresistibly giddy song may have lacked in originality, it has made up for with countless twirls on the dance floor over the years, tossing your head and your inhibitions in the hopes to feel the heat with somebody.