In much the way folks argued over Whitney versus Mariah and Monica versus Brandy, in times to come, I'm sure there will be hotheads who engage in high-decibel fisticuffs over which soul diva had the best debut of 2008. Since I like to make it hot, I'll strike the first match and place myself squarely in Jazmine Sullivan's camp. Despite a couple of hiccups, Jazmine's album more than satisfies. On the other hand, Jennifer Hudson's album - while beautifully sung - disappoints. Of course, as an eager buyer destined to ignore this review because it's...well, "JHud for God's sake," I suspect your response to this much anticipated debut will depend on a number of factors. The most deciding factor being age and, by association, your ear's attunement to the retro-80s synthpop and auto tune production dominating urban radio.
Since I already lived through the original era these copycats are emulating (and I'm still not exactly sure why they believe the 80s are worth repeating) I think you can safely predict how this electronic-thick album hit my ear.
Jennifer Hudson's self-titled debut album isn't really her fault. In fact, Jennifer is the best thing about the project. What's wrong? It's the music. It's the songs. It's the producers-of-the-moment who chose trend over substance. It's the decision to pair her with T-Pain. It's producers who appear destined to repeat the mistakes of the past, the mistakes of a different Jennifer. Call it the curse of Effie White.
Jennifer Holliday is the ghost that hovers over Jennifer Hudson's music career, so similar have these big-voiced, voluptuous women's paths been to date. When Jennifer Holliday came off her universally acclaimed Tony Award-winning performance as Effie Melody White, it was with high expectations that she entered the recording studio, a set-up not unlike a certain Oscar winner. Another bottomless voice both huge and magical, Holliday was assumed to be embarking on a recording career worthy of her fictional nemesis, Deena Jones. Like Hudson's "Spotlight," Holliday's first non-Dreamgirls related single, "I Am Love," was a bonafide hit. Commercially, the debut album, Feel The Love and it's number #2 Billboard single, "I Am Love," proved flukes, scuttled by fashionably thin songs ill-equipped for the enormity of Holliday's voice. While there would be other charters and minor commercial successes like 1991's I'm On Your Side, the subsequent glow of Jennifer Holliday's spotlight flickered rather than burned.
Most whispered that it was Holliday's unconventional size for a female star that destroyed her chance for the cross-over success her voice so richly deserved; she was Effie White made real. That theory was torpedoed in 1991 after Jennifer's 100 plus pound weight loss failed to be accompanied by multi-platinum success. It wasn't the weight, it was all those inept, radio-conscious songs that proved Holliday's undoing. Expectations were crushed under the weight of too many albums leaden-with-filler material by every hit songwriter and producer of the day, including: Barry Eastmond, DJ Rodgers, Tommy LiPuma and Ashford and Simpson. With the exception of a few roomy torchsongs and a Grammy award winning gospel number, it seemed Holliday was destined for life as a dance diva forever known for one-defining role and moment. It was an early peak no one else was thought capable of matching until Jennifer Hudson arrived.
And arrive she has. Jennifer Hudson is already an Oscar winner with several movie performances in the can, including this summer's 200 million dollar hit, Sex in The City: The Movie. In Hollywood, JHud has already surpassed Jennifer Holliday's success. Now all that was left was for her to conquer the music world as well. Clive Davis signed her to J Records and a bluesy duet with Ne-Yo hinted at the mature A-list material we thought would come. With a voice that brought movie audiences to their feet in thunderous applause upon hearing Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" in Dreamgirls, what could possibly go wrong?
"Spotlight," with its throwback vocals and strutting baseline, was already becoming a hit when the vivacious "All Dressed Up In Love" from the Sex in The City movie helped push that soundtrack to platinum status, a move blostered by iTunes decision to make the song unavailable as an independent purchase (though it is included on this debut). After watching the over 30s crowd go wild for "All Dressed Up In Love" at a party I DJ'd, I thought Jennifer had avoided the dreaded curse of Effie White. With Ne-Yo, Sex, and "Spotlight," the lady was three for three before even dropping a release date. So it should be no surprise that my hands shook with excitement when I received the album.
First, I heard the Shirley Brown "Woman to Woman" meets Monica and Brandy's "The Boy Is Mine" duet with the perfectly paired Fantasia on "I'm His Only Woman." The overwritten intro aside (who uses their full name in this context?), the calculated tune was exactly what I thought we'd get from Hudson, old meets new soul passionately sung. I skipped to "Pocketbook (featuring Ludacris)," because I knew what the reference meant growing up in my neighborhood and thought it clever for a club banger. The Timbaland produced track is easily the best uptempo tune on the album and should seal the deal to give Jennifer a platinum plus album. Smiling, I skipped to the Warren Campbell gospel number, "Jesus Promised Me A Home Over There" and heard JHud gloriously soar over a nearly accapella track deserving of a choir. I didn't like the electronic additives to her backing vocals on "My Heart," but the formula tune was infectious enough to please. Satisfied that Jennfier Hudson had buried Effie Melody White once and for all, I settled in to hear the whole album from the beginning.
I think my eyes were bloodshot and murderous by the time I was done listening to the T-Pain duet, where the male "singer" decided to perform and produce all his parts through auto-tune. The decision allowed us to hear JHUD express her undying love to what sounded like a computer entity from outer space. I am still scratching my head as to why producer Robin Thicke didn't make Hudson do another take of her ultra-thin high notes closing the Prince does "Adore" ballad, "Giving Myself." That lazy decision undermines the eloquence of all that came before her weak descending runs. At least Thicke got to the end before irking me, Harvey Mason and Brian Kennedy only got past a few bars on "You Pull Me Through" before going for a full out epic-I mean really BIG-synth-pop soundscape on a song that transitioned from promise to one of those artificially anthemic numbers that end every season of American Idol (was this reclaimed glory missed?). Ne-Yo and Stargate continues the distressing electronic pop trend on the anemic "Can't Stop The Rain." Be afraid when Tank produces one of the best songs on the project, "We Gon Fight." Shame that it's better suited for R. Kelly than Hudson's full vocals. With everything left in me, I prayed that the men who pulled "And I'm Telling You" out of JHud would make me see "Invisible," but instead the Underdogs delivers Hudson a demo track that sounds ready-made for Jordan Sparks. Good times, here, folks, good times.
With the exception of the "Giving Myself" closer, Jennifer Hudson is in exquisite voice throughout empty tunes that are too small for her talent. In this way she has stepped squarely into Jennifer Holliday's ill-fated pumps and it's painful to hear. I dare to say songs like "If This Isn't Love" may also be better suited for a younger, more vocally stylistic artist. The irony is that they are the kind of songs I mistakenly envisioned hearing when I first read the track list for Jazmine Sullivan's Fearless before its fresh innovations were finally heard. With these two J Records' ladies debuting a week apart, and promo dollars lean in hard times, I hear the ghost of Effie rattling and Deena Jones smiling. Mildly Recommended.
-L. Michael Gipson