In her prime, Whitney Houston had one of the most versatile voices in music.
While she was in her element with soul and gospel music, Houston could sing just about anything and blow everyone out of the water. Genres – from pop standards to opera to house – bent to the will of “The Voice”, with its rich tone and otherworldly elasticity. One of the great disappointments of her professional career was that the full breadth of her abilities could never be fully appreciated by her catalog (a quick YouTube search of her live performances will dispel any doubt of her artistry). The seven years since her untimely death have done little to correct that error, only offering mild cash grabs in the forms of a live album rehashing her classics and a 25th anniversary edition of The Bodyguard soundtrack.
The release of “Higher Love”, Houston’s long-lost cover of the Steve Winwood hit that’s been remixed by Norwegian DJ Kygo, is quite the surprise, for that and other reasons. The timing is a bit random: aside from the terrible idea of a proposed hologram tour, it’s been pretty quiet on the Whitney front. Then there’s the choice of “Higher Love”. Originally released as a Japanese bonus track on 1990’s I’m Your Baby Tonight, Houston’s version swapped out Winwood’s 80’s synths and horns for new jack swing and a backing choir to give it a gospel flavor. Her arrangement hasn’t aged very well, so it’s odd that her estate would choose it out of all her unreleased material for a remix (“Takin’ a Chance” – the other Japanese bonus track – deserved better). The choice of Kygo also feels a bit odd, if only because there might’ve been more obvious, well-known picks for such a hefty task.
The end result is another surprise: “Higher Love” is really good. Kygo strips the original down to its bare essentials – Houston’s sterling-silver vocal – and re-builds it into an bright, breezy tropical house romp. The arrangement is part and parcel for Kygo, but he also understands the treasure that is Whitney Houston as his vocalist, especially from this period when she was at the top of her game. The range, power, and soulfulness of her performance is astounding, and Kygo’s elegant, supportive production makes it easier to appreciate than on the original. While he is happy to let Houston take center stage, Kygo certainly isn’t passive (although you couldn’t blame him if he were). His work maintains the integrity of her vocals, but he isn’t above having some fun, especially chopping and mixing her up in the punchy post-chorus breakdown. Houston is no stranger to a cracking remix, and Kygo’s effort here ranks amongst the iconic Thunderpuss mix of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” and the Freemasons edit of “Million Dollar Bill” as her best.
Whatever the strangeness of the circumstances on paper, “Higher Love” is a delight. Not only does Kygo’s remix offer a stark reminder of Whitney Houston’s near-singular vocal talent, it frames her abilities in a new, musically relevant context. If you weren’t aware of the tragic circumstances of her life and death, you could reasonably believe that this was a legitimate “song of the summer” contender. In fact, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. It’s what Houston deserves.