Kygo’s take on “Higher Love” offers a lesson in modern pop clichés. There’s the aqueous, bubbling-up intro. There’s the way all the expected production elements—dreamy marimba tones, chipper horns, drums that crash then lope, chopped-up and pitched-down vocals—pile up for a sense of acceleration through the verse and multi-section chorus. In the post-chorus, he does the common pop-EDM move of making it feel as though the main hook is a shoe that’s tumbling around in a dryer. “Need / need / higher love,” Houston now stammers, her articles snipped out and her melody ping-ponging about. Right before the second verse, there’s a noticeably long pause—very on-trend, too—and the roller coaster starts climbing again.
If Kygo’s formula is blandly familiar, it still pops with Houston’s vocals and the proven catchiness of Winwood’s original tune. “Higher Love” has only been out for a little more than a week, and I’ve heard it on commuter radio and in Wimbledon promos and at beach bars and pool parties. It debuted at No. 63 on the Billboard Hot 100—not the most impressive placing, but Houston’s first song to debut on that chart in 10 years—and No. 2 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart, which speaks more to its intended fate.
Kygo debuted the song live at Pride in New York City, and “Higher Love” unmistakably is aiming for high-energy, thump-thumping queer mega-clubs, the playlists of which are historically testing grounds for high-energy, thump-thumping mega-clubs of all sorts. This is an environment Houston’s voice is well suited to. Pride-month dance floors were already ringing out with the likes of “I Want to Dance With Somebody” and “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay”—in many cases in remixes that place Houston’s vocals in glittering, four-on-the-floor epics. That the estate and Primary Wave chose the EDM sound for Houston’s so-called comeback single is a sign that they understand her everlasting appeal in the dance-music context.
Read: Whitney Houston and the persistent perils of the mainstream
But the choice also raises the memory of tensions that ran throughout her career. Houston always walked aesthetic tightropes, performing a balancing act involving genre, race, spirituality, and questions of creative agency. After being marketed in the ’80s as a “crossover” star—as in, palatable to white people—Houston faced backlash from some black listeners that culminated in her being booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. She then tried to push the sound of her next album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, more in the direction of R&B. The “Higher Love” cover was recorded in this period. While the Winwood original may read as consummately “white” music (though Chaka Khan, Houston’s friend, sang on it), the version Houston performed in Japan came with a hint of New Jack Swing sound. That sound has been replaced by one that, to the extent it’s affiliated with any one group, is affiliated with Scandinavians who command nightclub residencies in Las Vegas.