* Houston releasing first album in seven years
* Can she rebound in a Beyonce world?
* Big-name songwriters featured on new album

LOS ANGELES - Don't call it a comeback. I've been here for years, Whitney Houston sings on what is, in fact, her latest comeback album.

The 46-year-old pop singer, a long-term resident of the record charts during the 1980s and '90s, officially ends a seven-year hiatus on Monday with the U.S. release of her sixth studio album, I Look To You.

Early reviews are promising and Houston's Sony Corp (6758.T) (SNE.N)-owned Arista Records label hopes it will become one of the biggest sellers of the year.

The music industry desperately needs a hit. Annual U.S. sales in 2009 are on track to slide for the eighth time in nine years, ravaged by the recession, piracy and competition from other forms of entertainment such as video games.

Houston could also do with a hit. Her previous album Just Whitney in 2002, also was billed as a comeback and was the worst-selling of her career. She got more attention in the ensuing years for her rocky personal life, including multiple stints in drug rehab and a bitter divorce from former R&B star Bobby Brown.

In fact, she half-jokingly said last month that she had been planning to retire to an island when her mentor, record-industry chieftain Clive Davis, phoned 3 1/2 years ago to lure her back to the studio.

Davis, who has closely overseen Houston's career since signing her at a New York nightclub in 1983, lined up such A-listers as R&B singers Alicia Keys and R. Kelly, and prolific tunesmith Diane Warren to write songs for Houston.


Keys wrote the single Million Dollar Bill, which received a warm reception at radio stations earlier this month. But will that translate into big album sales, especially when there's a new crop of superstars in the spotlight?

It's a Beyonce world, said Caryn Ganz, an editor at Rolling Stone magazine. I don't think Whitney has a clear place anymore and I don't think Madonna does either.

She predicted early sales would be strong, then taper off.

Arista agrees with the first half of that assessment. Industry sources expect the album will sell between 300,000 and 400,000 copies across the United States during its first week, easily taking the No. 1 spot during a late-summer slump.

This is a cultural event, said Scott Seviour, the label's senior VP of marketing and artist development. The enthusiasm and the energy for this release is palpable.

Such a start would outpace first-week tallies for recent releases by Kelly Clarkson (255,000) and Madonna (280,000) but fall short of those for Mariah Carey (463,000), Beyonce (482,000) and Britney Spears (505,000).
Just Whitney, the only album that Davis did not work on, debuted at No. 9 in 2002 with 205,000 copies and sold about 730,000, overall. Houston's worldwide sales of albums, singles and videos stand at 170 million units, according to Arista.

The label has left no marketing stone unturned, targeting Houston's core fan base of 30- to 55-year-old women, as well as the gay and lesbian community, Seviour said.

For her part, Houston has adopted a low profile. As with her 2002 album, she has consented to only one big TV interview, this time on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which will air on Sept. 14. Next Tuesday, she will tape a performance in New York's Central Park for ABC's breakfast show Good Morning America.

A few magazine cover stories are in the works, including the next issue of Ebony, and there probably will be a concert tour next year, Seviour said. (Reporting by Dean Goodman; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Bill Trott)