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Industry looks to Whitney's comeback

And likes what it's seeing, hearing: Potential for a No. 1 comeback

When Whitney Houston's first album in seven years arrives Monday, it'll launch what's sure to be one of the most closely watched comeback campaigns in decades.

Since the release of 2002's Just Whitney, Houston has had more publicity for personal drama - her rocky marriage to Bobby Brown, her stints in drug rehab - than for the formidable talents that brought the singer fame in the '80s. But industry insiders are rooting for Houston and seem cautiously optimistic that fans will be similarly inclined.

Certainly, Houston's label, Arista, is pulling out all the stops. Originally scheduled to arrive Sept. 1, I Look to You has been pushed up a day, which makes it eligible for next year's Grammy Awards and extends the window for crucial first-week sales.

Houston is set to tape a live performance Tuesday in Central Park to air the following day on Good Morning America, and she sits down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey on Sept. 14.

Clive Davis, who signed Houston as a teenager and oversaw her rise, enlisted top writers and producers, from younger urban icons such as StarGate and Akon to adult-contemporary giants Diane Warren and David Foster.

This summer, Davis held "listening sessions" in New York, Los Angeles and London, playing tracks for celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder and Jane Fonda. "There was a roaring ovation after every song," he says. Several major media outlets, including USA TODAY, have given the album positive reviews.

The public reception will be more relevant to the album's success, of course. Singles I Look to You and Million Dollar Bill were, respectively, sent to urban radio in July and pop and rhythm formats in August. Both achieved most-added status. Davis points out that Bill "beat out Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus on top 40, which has a young demographic."

With that kind of rollout, "I think (I Look to You) will be No. 1 the week it comes out," says Keith Caulfield, senior chart manager at Billboard. "And we should be surprised if it's not a solid seller going into Christmas."

Caulfield concedes that a solid seller in today's market isn't what it was at Houston's peak: "Find me an artist that could sell 10 million right now. But people who still buy albums, as opposed to iTune tracks, tend to be older consumers, and that could work in Whitney's favor."

So could positioning Houston as a survivor, says Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. "America loves a redemption story. If (Whitney) tells her story and seems in a good place, people will respond to that."

Warren has little doubt that fans will receive both Houston and her music with open arms.

"Look at what happened to Michael Jackson," Warren says. "That could have been Whitney if she hadn't straightened her life out. But she has, thank God, and we all want her to win."