Soulful
by Ruben Studdard, pop/R&B (2003)
J Records, ASIN B0000AGWGD


Ruben Studdard proves that sometimes being the winner of American Idol can be the worst thing that can happen to you. Soulful, his debut CD, is a collection of generic mainstream R&B tunes that are neither memorable nor remarkable. This CD is not too bad, actually, but at the same time, it's not one I'd recommend people to go out and buy either.

What is apparent though from listening to this CD is why Studdard won American Idol over that overdramatic moppet Clay Aiken. Studdard's voice is free from melodrama and possesses some ear candy quality that makes even the most generic track on Soulful listenable. Now if only the producers can figure out what to do with his voice.

They are on the right track on some tracks. Play Our Song is my favorite - it's a bouncy and romantic song that manages to be relevant in today's oversaturated R&B market as well as brings back pleasant memories of the most romantic R&B tunes of yore. You know, those days when men actually sing instead of rap and carrying a tune isn't the sole responsibility of some scantily-clad chorus girl in the video. His cover of the Bee Gees' How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is pure magic: not one note is out of place and the whole song is romanticism personified. Take The Shot is also a pretty good track with great hooks, although listeners more comfortable with Studdard's PG image on the show will be startled at the words to this track.

Indeed, while Aiken's people see fit to keep his image as asexual as possible to keep his fans' wedding dreams to him intact, Studdard's people seems intent to tearing his family-friendly image down to make him more accessible to listeners more used to the current faux-hardcore thuggish images of male music icons, MTV-style. On Take The Shot, he proclaims himself a player, claiming that while he can take any girl he wants home, he however, needs some loving - it's a pick-up line as much as any. On What Is Sexy, he insists that sexiness comes in all forms so why don't you ladies line up and test his own brand of sexy. Self-aggrandizing tracks like Can I Get Your Attention and No Ruben see him annointing himself the ultimate ladies man, player, hotshot, and life of the party. The trouble here is that Studdard often fails to project the dangerous and predatory vibe needed to make these songs convincing. His voice is made for slow sensual loving by the fireplace, not wild and meaningless one-night stands in the backseat of a car.

He shines best when he's singing unfortunately average ballads like After The Candles Burn and For All We Know. He strikes the best balance between droopy sentimentalism and buoyant bounce and playfulness in Play Our Song, but the other romantic ballads aren't too bad in their own right. The only problem is that these songs aren't Ruben Studdard songs as much as songs that are generic radio-friendly pop tunes.

Nonetheless, despite its flaws, Soulful is a surprisingly well-produced CD. Compared to Aiken's rushed and truly badly-produced CD, it is a startling difference just how different the two CDs are when it comes to CD art, mixes, instrumentation, and vocal productions. It is clear who has the bigger clout here - for the time being, at least. Aiken may be selling more than Studdard at the moment, but with Soulful, Studdard has come up with a far more superior CD that sounds relevant today as well as catering to listeners hankering for some male artists that can carry a tune instead of mumbling "Ho ho ho, I am a thug, give me scantily clad hos!" all over the place while shoving their ugly faces at the camera.

Make no mistake, Soulful is not a brilliant CD in any way - tracks like Sorry 2004 sound like something rejected by Usher and the truly horrid covers of Superstar and Flying Without Wings are pure rubbish. But as Justin Guarini, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, and Gareth Gates have shown, Soulful could easily be much more worse. Time will tell if Studdard call follow the footsteps of Pop Idol winner Will Young and come up with a follow-up CD that actually sells well as much as it wows critics (Young co-wrote and co-produced most tracks on his second CD).

Rating: 75


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