Ruben Studdard - Unconditional Love

Ruben Studdard
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Cuddly and charismatic, with a round-the-way persona and a voice like crushed velvet, Birmingham, Alabama's Ruben Studdard has had an eventful decade, turning his 2004 American Idol win into a steady stream of R&B faves ("Change Me, "Sorry 2004," "Flying Without Wings," etc.), stage and screen performances and even short-lived stints in both a marriage and a reality show. 

As uneven as the last few years may have been for Studdard, he isn't the first artist who's suffered missteps like declining sales, messy management drama or record label change-ups, but he's got to be one of the few possessing gifts so resplendent that a veteran musical icon, the one-man hit producer/arranger/composer/songwriter David Foster, signs him to the label he runs (Verve) and pours all of his well-honed skills into a sixth CD, Unconditional Love. 

Cuddly and charismatic, with a round-the-way persona and a voice like crushed velvet, Birmingham, Alabama's Ruben Studdard has had an eventful decade, turning his 2004 American Idol win into a steady stream of R&B faves ("Change Me, "Sorry 2004," "Flying Without Wings," etc.), stage and screen performances and even short-lived stints in both a marriage and a reality show. 

As uneven as the last few years may have been for Studdard, he isn't the first artist who's suffered missteps like declining sales, messy management drama or record label change-ups, but he's got to be one of the few possessing gifts so resplendent that a veteran musical icon, the one-man hit producer/arranger/composer/songwriter David Foster, signs him to the label he runs (Verve) and pours all of his well-honed skills into a sixth CD, Unconditional Love. 

For most of Ruben's peers, one look at the titles of this eleven song set would likely inspire skepticism at an ability to master the material: after all, with the exception of one track, the rest of the songs span genres and were originally executed by some of the industry's most instantly-recognizable performers. Thanks to the adroitness of Mr. Studdard, however, the covers sparkle anew and his pipes never clash with Foster's plush, sweeping, signature arrangements or the delicate phrasing required to pull them off. "Close The Door," for example, the instantly-recognizable Teddy Pendergrass classic, is fluttery and silky when 'Rubenized,' and his treatment of the Bonnie Raitt ballad, "I Can't Make You Love Me," is brimming with a dignified, yet vulnerable acceptance of the status quo. Even pop and jazz favorites such as The Carpenters' "They Long To Be (Close To You)" and "The Nearness of You" are unhurried and enchanted. 
 
As polished as the set is though, some of his followers will be yearning for some good ol' 2004-recalling soul, which appears toward the very end via the disco-ready Paul and Linda McCartney hit, "My Love" (so 'Lutherized' that you want to put on a pink-trimmed jogging suit, headphones and roller skates while singing along), Gamble & Huff-recalling "Meant To Be," the sole number Studdard contributed lyrics to (with Jay Landers, Charlie Midnight and Foster himself) and his Luther Vandross/Chery Lynn-styled duet with the incomparable Lalah Hathaway, "If This World Were Mine." This is the first-ever duet from the pair, but the way Lalah's and Ruben's supple vocals meld note for note, particularly using their delightfully dusky lower registers, one would never know. 

Blending Ruben Studdard's southern-flavored soul and David Foster's Grammy-Award-winning Midas touch might seem like a bit of a stretch, but from the very beginning the American Idol winner demonstrated skills that could transcend the trends and make songs timeless. Some will yearn for more grit and less gloss, but for Velvet Teddy Bear fans, there's plenty to marvel at and enjoy about Unconditional Love.   Highly Recommended.

By Melody Charles

 
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