Some people are born to do one thing. These people possess the extraordinary ability to do something better than almost anyone else, and while they work hard at honing their craft, in the end this intangible quality comes uniquely from within, as much a part of them as the marrow of their bones. Beethoven could have worked as a mediocre painter or wig salesman, but he could have only become a legend as a composer. Or to use more modern examples: Tupac was born to rap, Chris Brown was born to dance and R. Kelly …
DJBooth Album Review
We can now add Jennifer Hudson to that list. Hudson, who rose from the sea of mediocrity that is American Idol to full-fledged stardom, was born to sing soul and gospel. The 27-year-old Hudson has the kind of voice that makes you forget to breathe, a voice so strong it overshadowed Beyonce and earned her a Grammy. Now, more than four years since her turn on the Idol stage comes her debut album, the self-titled Jennifer Hudson. Jennifer Hudson is a sometimes-electrifying affair that was well worth the wait, but it’s also a sometimes overwrought and over-thought album that tries to do too much. Why such a long wait? I have to believe it’s because some people (a.k.a. record execs) spent that time trying to mold Jennifer into something she’s not, to make her do something she wasn’t born to do.
Before we can talk about what Jennifer Hudson the album doesn’t do, we first have to establish what Jennifer Hudson the person can do. To put it simply, Hudson can sing. I’m talking get down on your knees, look up to the skies and say “goddamn she just broke it the f**k down” style singing. So much has been written about And I’m Telling You, the show stopping song from Dreamgirls that also makes an appearance on the album, that I can’t possibly add much more, other than to say that it’s one of the most dynamic performances in memory. Most impressively Hudson delivers her vocal fireworks without resorting to the kind of gimmicks lesser singers so often hide behind. While Jennifer Hudson doesn’t have another song as point blank amazing as I’m Telling You, the unabashedly gospel track Jesus Promised Me A Home Over There comes the closest. I’m not a religious man, but I’d show up to church just to hear Hudson sing Jesus Promised. I’m telling you, this woman was born to sing gospel and soul.
Here’s the problem - gospel and soul don’t sell nearly as well as radio r&b. Unlike gospel, which puts the vocalist center stage while relegating the production to a supporting role, radio r&b places addictive beats and catchy hooks at a premium, confining vocal firepower to a few predicable spots. There isn’t a better example of this difference than the Timbaland produced single Pocketbook. While Timbo’s trademark rhythms make Pocketbook a head-nodding affair, Hudson has to restrain her voice so thoroughly in order to not overwhelm the beat that she almost disappears. It’s like watching Lebron hit lay-ups instead of throwing down dunks. But that’s nothing compared to What’s Wrong. All I have to say about What’s Wrong is that Jennifer Hudson singing a duet with T-Pain (yes, a duet) is like drinking non-alcoholic beer; why wouldn't you just take the real thing? The radio-friendly tracks like Pocketbook that are scattered throughout Jennifer Hudson are fine, they’re just disappointingly flat once we know what Hudson is capable of. In other words, Hudson’s biggest problem seems to be that she’s too good for the music world around her.
That’s not to say that radio r&b and soul/gospel can’t peacefully and successfully co-exist (just look at Mary J Blige). The Ne-Yo produced Spotlight captivates while still giving Hudson enough room to show why she’s special, and If This Isn’t Love pulses with an addictive energy, but ultimately Jennifer Hudson is an album from a young woman still searching for her musical identity. Make no mistake, Hudson will be a force in the music industry for years to come. Let’s just hope the next time around she’s allowed to showcase a little but more of what she was born to do – sing.
DJBooth Rating - 3.5 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 10/9/08
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