She performed four songs: "Million Dollar Bill" and "I Look to You" from her new album, as well as classics "My Love Is Your Love" and "I'm Every Woman."
The most honored female artist of all time, Whitney Houston is the only artist ever to have seven consecutive multiplatinum albums, beating out even the Beatles.
The crowd at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield was full of devoted fans, many of whom waited hours in the blazing sun for her performance -- and years for her comeback.
Fans enthusiastically sang along with the band during the sound check, and chants of "Whitney, Whitney" rang out before she came onstage.
"I've been waiting for this since her greatest hits album [in 2000]," one fan said.
Another fan said Houston knew how to work the crowd and get people excited, calling her "a diva in the best sense of the word."
Many commented on the heat and waved themselves with custom-made Whitney Houston hand fans. The fans were distributed before the concert for free, but some people offered to buy them from other audience members as souvenirs.
Houston, 44, thanked the crowd for coming and replied to shouts of "I love you, Whitney" by saying "I love you more." She blew kisses to the audience and seemed to have fun throughout the concert.
She kicked off with "Million Dollar Bill," a single from her new album written by fellow multiple Grammy award winner Alicia Keys.
Keys has described Houston as her idol and inspiration.
"She was just kind of chosen to have a voice that would speak to people," Keys told "GMA" earlier this year.
Keys grew up listening to Houston and said the star "has been with me since I was a young girl and has shown me what it feels like to dream.
"I feel really excited for her and, as a fan of hers, I feel very excited for us," she added. "I feel that she really is ready to come into the world and show us what we've been missing."
The crowd in Central Park agreed.
"I'm so emotionally drained after that performance," one fan said after the first song.
Houston chatted with "Good Morning America" anchors Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts and said the crowd's reaction was overwhelming and that her fans' "prayers mean so much to me."
The star recently sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey set to air Monday, Sept. 14, and she said on "GMA" that she's come a long way since her 2002 sit-down with Diane Sawyer.
"Don't be worried anymore," she told Sawyer. "If you know God don't be worried."
She added that she got through the difficult times with the help of "my faith and the love and support of my fans, which I do have. The support of friends, people who really care about you in the good and the bad."
Houston followed up "Million Dollar Bill" with an impromptu performance of "My Love Is Your Love." She was joined onstage by her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, who sang along and asked the crowd to clap their hands.
Houston has said that her 16-year-old daughter was part of the inspiration for her new album.
Before beginning her third song, Houston thanked her mother, soul and gospel singer Cissy Houston, who was in the audience, along with other family members.