September 27, 2008
Review: Jennifer Hudson
Whenever Jennifer Hudson came onscreen during the '04 season of American Idol, I'd screech, "Mrs. Sears!" (my surname). Her deep voice and the way she projected both self-respect and a rare measure of gravity was a welcome relief from the usual whorish Idol contestants. She listened to advice and modified her performance style as the show progressed. America booting off such a formidable, interesting talent was yet another example of mass stupidity.
We all know the rest of the story: Effie, Oscars, Andre Leon Talley, Carrie Bradshaw's hand-me-downs, etc. Jennifer's solo debut has taken forever and, while not a total disappointment, it does smack of large committees sat around a boardroom thinking about demographics and whatever hit radio potential is left in America.
Jennifer Hudson is evenly mixed with songs suggesting an artist trying to build a long career and a few crass attempts to shoehorn her into current styles. The Ne-Yo written debut single Spotlight ably straddles those two goals. It's about as catchy a tune as you'll hear on radio this year and the lyric is a twist on her own absurd level of fame. But it's not the album's classic. That title's reserved for the unbelievable We Gon' Fight. Like Mary J. Blige's No More Drama, this hair-rising midtempo should take the world by storm once it's performed live. It's a Mercedes of a song. I love it when she sings, "Like gangsters we gon' strap up for this war." The song has a thrilling gospel edge and a hair-raising hook: "I'm gon' fight for you / You're gon' fight for me... that's how it's gonna be." Fierce.
Ne-Yo's second contribution, Can't Stop The Rain, is a great narrative song, just when the record needed one, built on acoustic guitar. Upcoming single If This Isn't Love highlights the dilemma Hudson faced in trying to make an album that would "move units." I'm unclear who wrote the song, but it sounds exactly like every Keri Hilson / MJB track, with syllable-crammed verses that reek of recent r'n'b recordings. It doesn't sound even like Jennifer singing. That said, it's absolutely lush and the extended middle eight is stunning, especially the "I know I ain't crazy" section at 2:30. Gorgeous.
Hudson is liked by just about everyone, so it seems that everyone tried to get a song onto her album. The overrated Robin Thick contributes a repetitive ballad (Giving Myself) that attempts to mine Whitney territory, but just seems trite. Missy Elliott is - surprisingly - more successful, with her "diva showdown" track I'm His Only Woman. It allows Hudson to show some sass: "I don't need no introduction. I am his woman and I am Jennifer Hudson" she snaps. Her voice works well against Fantasia's broken-up, cracklady vocals (I say that with love - I think Fantasia is charming and deserves her own success).
The album's disaster is What's Wrong, with a pandering, obligatory T Pain feature. Painful. This autotuned dreck has nothing to do with Hudson - it could be any shitty singer. If you're going for the usual suspects, why not have her duet with the superior Cee Lo Green?
The dreaded Timbaland contribution, Pocketbook, is actually a kick. The hook "Don't make me hit you wit my pocketbook" is hilarious. Ludacris's rap is painfully explicit at moments ("Before I make you too wet girl..."), though there's a great moment where she cuts him off. I appreciate that Jennifer, so stoic on Idol and in Dreamgirls, wants to show some sass, but Ludacris overdoes it on a song so jaunty that it could have appealed to the granny set.
So where do Mrs. Sears and I end up? I will actually purchase the record. A conglomerate she may be - can a clothing line at Lane Bryant be far behind? - but I'm gon' fight for her.
Click here to listen to Jennifer Hudson.