I don’t blame her in the least – Not even an ounce! Candice Glover, like millions of others, went into American Idol with the dream of being a superstar. And the thing is, Glover has superstar talent, sporting one of the better voices to win the competition. But as has been proven time and time again, it takes more than talent to win over America… and I’m not talking about the American Idol viewing audience. By win over America, I’m referring to those near-extinct, extremely archaic things called album sales. Judging by the title, you can tell my girl’s sales are… “U-G-LY/ you ain’t got no alibi” Yes. What’s the word on the street? That on tomorrow’s Billboard 200 Chart, Candice Glover’s Music Speaks is a new entry at no. 14 with 19,000 copies sold. 19,000 copies! “Damn” (Track number four BTW). I won’t bore you with the stats of other victor’s albums sales, but know that comparatively, the robust-voiced Glover truly ‘laid an egg.’
Back in 2013, I penned a post entitled “Five Reasons Why Candice Glover May Have an Uphill Battle”. The give reasons were as follows back then: (1) low American Idol ratings, (2) unremarkable single sales (“I Am Beautiful”), (3) R&B continues to trend down, (4) lax promotion, and (5) major record labels tend to have a ‘short leash’. I went on to make the following prediction to conclude the post:
“Candice’s first album may compromise her talent/potential talent level by being rushed by a quick ‘turn-around’ date. The album will likely have insufficient promotion, hurt by ailing Idol ratings, poor single reception/sales, and a lack of deeper monetary investment. Because of this, the album will likely fall short in the sales department… Hopefully my pessimism is a Worst-case scenario. I wish Candice the upmost success and career.
As much as I hate to say it, many of my guesses were accurate. Believe me, as a hardcore fan of Glover, I hoped that my fortune-telling ways truly stank. But, having seen how often an album is “done” before it even has a chance over the years, this is no surprise. Of those five reasons, Glover’s ugly numbers are directly related to – DING, DING, DING – all five. The sole reason you could argue might be excused is the downtrend of R&B. R&B is still cooling, though there has been some success with albums by Beyoncé (Beyoncé) and Toni Braxton & Babyface (Love, Marriage & Divorce). That said, those are all established artists and Candice Glover was the winner of the least heralded season of an aging show. Oh well. Can’t cry over spilt milk?
Sooooo…What’s a talented artist to do? Keep on hustling another day. Make the most of the lot that is being given. The ceiling of the numbers is definitely discouraging, but as Ellie Goulding said best, “Anything Could Happen.” Do I believe it will… it’s another pessimistic no, unfortunately.
The Frozen Soundtrack is sort of like winter itself – it just don’t stop! Once more, Frozen finds itself atop the Billboard 200 Albums Chart selling 89,000 copies. It is surprising that Frozen was able to rise to the top once more, particularly after Eric Church blew the competition out of the water with last weeks no. 1 debuting The Outsiders, which had sold 288,000 copies. This week, Church takes a step back to no. 2 with only 74,000 copies sold… yuck! Country newbie Cole Swindell debuts respectably with 63,000 copies of Cole Swindell, good for a no. 3 bow. Issues – an up and coming rock band – lands at no. 9 with Issues, selling 22,000 copies. Notice Candice Glover misses the top 10 with debut album Music Speaks. What a shame. Also no signs of Phantogram‘s Voices.
By the way, the “Dark Horse” has been dethroned… Pharrell Williams takes the incredibly fun “Happy” to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. First he “got lucky” at no. 2 and now he’s incredibly “happy” at no. 1. Top spot baby! Who’s got next on next week’s charts? Beck (Morning Phase), St. Vincent (St. Vincent), and Schoolboy Q (Oxymoron) are all strong candidates. Where they will land, well only time will tell.
After much delay, Candice Glover finally delivers her debut album
Candice Glover • Music Speaks • 19 • US Release Date: February 18, 2014
Honestly, it seemed like an urban-sounding artist might never win American Idol again, let alone a female contestant after a string of victorious males. Candice Glover became the first female victor since Jordin Sparks, though bad timing kind of killed her vibe. Glover was brilliant throughout a season where everything seemed dead WRONG. The judges’ panel lacked chemistry (and sometimes tact) while many of the contestants seemed, um, blasé. The ratings were down and despite a set summer 2013 release for Glover’s debut, it was pushed back to the Fall. After being pushed back to the Fall, well, the album again was pushed back… until 2014. Finally, Glover delivers Music Speaks to her fans. Unfortunately, what little buzz surrounded her or the show seems nearly mute, and winning single “I Am Beautiful” doesn’t even make the album cut. Still as Lupe Fiasco would say, “The Show Goes On” and Glover definitely shows she has considerable talent throughout Music Speaks.
Promo single “Cried” opens Music Speaks incredibly. A well-written, heart-wrenching track (co-written by R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan), “Cried” showcases the power, finesse, and nuance of Glover’s voice. As far as being a single that truly elevates Glover to stardom or commercial aspirations, “Cried” is likely not the answer. Another minor rub against the notable cut is its specific placement within the track list; perhaps it could’ve been even more effective elsewhere besides the opener. Regardless, Glover gives her all on the incredibly underrated single.
“Die Without You” isn’t a shabby follow-up in the least, sporting a “cool, calm, and collected” sensibility about it. “Die Without You” succeeds at being both modern yet old school. “Die Without You” has enough swagger that it falls in line with the tenets of adult contemporary R&B, but also has that ‘grown folks’ sexiness (“I’d die without you”). If there is one nitpick, it is that Glover could have even freed her voice more on the ad-libs. Still, that falsetto towards the end is pretty sweet. Two tracks in, Glover is on the right track.
“Same Kinda Man” benefits from its retro-soul production, which proves to be a perfect fit for Glover. Glover feels as if she’s found her niche here; it doesn’t seem far-fetched that she’s an old soul. Something about the ambience of horns and a compelling, powerhouse voice makes “Same Kinda Man” extremely appealing. “Damn” is equally captivating, even if the full production of “Same Kinda Man” is traded for a more stripped, piano-driven backdrop. Regardless of less instrumentation, Glover truly sells the “I love another woman’s man” narrative. Sure, the concept is ‘tried-and-true’, if not completely cliché, but even if Glover doesn’t seem to be the type to experience what she sings of, it’s still a treat. “Damn, damn, damn / I fell in love with someone else’s man,” she sings on the simplistic, but addictive chorus. So far, so good for Candice Glover.
“Passenger” from a first listen comes off a bit of a bore; its length certainly doesn’t help either. After a couple of spins though, the adult contemporary track has some magic about it, specifically the chorus (“I’ll be your passenger / I’ll go where you want me too / I’ll let you navigate / just let me ride with you”). By the end, Glover’s rousing ad-libs certainly atone for any miscues. Perhaps it isn’t quite as ‘elite’ as the opening quartet; “Passenger” is another solid, love joint. “Forever That Man” and “Kiss Me” also lack the same fire/intensity of the opening tracks. Both are solid listens ultimately, but they don’t necessarily separate Glover from other artists in the same vein. “Forever That Man” gives Glover a pop-oriented ballad, which does at least open the door for crossover appeal. Even so, it isn’t quite a perfect match. “Kiss Me” lacks a bit of excitement, though Glover certainly performs it well.
“In The Middle” is a surprise once it begins playing, particularly following somewhat more conservative cuts like the trio preceding it. The interpolation of “Ting A Ling” is obvious, but it definitely works contextually. If anything, compared to the previous three cuts, “In The Middle” has more sass and personality. Worth noting is that former American Idol champ Fantasia serves as a co-writer. The personality of “In The Middle” also translates onto “Coulda Been Me”, a six-eight cut using some chopped-n-screwed vocals for flavor. Don’t worry folks; Glover’s talented pipes remain intact and flawless.
Penultimate cut “Thank You” has a vintage nature about it, given its main idea and production, but it shows Glover truly in her ‘zone’. Like “Cried”, “Thank You” may not be the lift to propel Glover to commercial success, but it is definitely enjoyable and inspiring. “Love Song”, Glover’s ‘ace in the hole’ on American Idol, concludes the brief 11 track affair. The performance is solid, but similar to Fantasia’s cover of “Summertime” is a performance that just can’t be perfectly replicated in the studio setting. Still, “Love Song” caps off Music Speaks sincerely and appropriately.
Ultimately how does Glover’s Music Speaks stack up comparatively to former Idol debut albums? It’s respectable, though not classic. There is enough solid material and magnificent vocals from Glover to make the album sound and enjoyable, but there is nothing that makes it a contemporary masterpiece. The greatest pro in regards to Music Speaks is its potential; that potential is certainly grand.
“Cried”; “Die Without You”; “Same Kinda Man”; “Damn”; Thank You”
Let the “Church” say yes… Corny, I know. But one of country’s rising stars, Eric Church, just continues to rise. The Outsiders gives Church his second no. 1 album, selling a healthy 288,000 copies. Sub 100K weeks are done, at least this week. How does The Outsiders’ numbers compare to the numbers that greeted Chief? Well ole boy “Doubled Up”… or nearly doubled up (145,000 copies). In a slow weak for new releases, well, Church was the bright spot. Compilations continue to do soundly though, as Frozen Soundtrack sold another 100,000 (no. 2) and Now 49 sold 77,000 copies after a no. 1 debut. From there, the numbers are only so-so. What is notable, however, is that Toni Braxton & Babyface only see a small drop in sales of Love Marriage & Divorce (it is no. 8 this week). Go figure.
On The Billboard Hot 100, Katy Perry continues to rule the roost with some help from Juicy J on “Dark Horse”. However, being “Happy” definitely helps Pharrell Williams, who’s Academy Award nominated hit sits at no. 2.
As for next week’s chart impact from new releases, Candice Glover, the American Idol season 12 victor, released her debut album Music Speaks. Unfortunately, with little fanfare behind the album, who knows how well it will sale. Otherwise, unless Cole Swindell is incredibly established as a new country force, sales might underwhelm.
Ah, another week and the necessity for new music. February has been a slow month, particularly last week’s scant choice of releases. The three most notable releases last week included two country music artists Eric Church (The Outsiders) and Frankie Ballard (Sunshine & Whiskey), as well as a more underrated R&B release from British singer Daley (Days & Nights). This week isn’t exactly stacked, but there are seven new releases worthy of your consideration, particularly if the music collection is becoming a bit uninspired!
After much delay, American Idol season 12 victor Candice Glover drops her debut album Music Speaks, led by single “Cried”. Unfortunately, season 12 could be described as a ‘bust’ (at least in my eyes), so there isn’t a great amount of buzz surrounding this album. Still, Glover possessed a powerful voice; don’t sleep on it!
My sole experience with indie-pop duo Phantogram (Josh Carter and Sarah Barthel) involves a Flaming Lips song called “You Lust” in which the duo guests. If their work on that track is an accurate preview, sophomore album Voices – their first album in five years – could be something special. On their official Facebook page, Phantogram’s music is described as “a mix of organic and electronic sounds, with swirling guitar, spaced out synths, and chopped up samples and rhythms.” Sounds right up my alley!
One of my flaws as a music journalist as of late has been not giving enough love to country music – shame on me! I missed an opportunity with the release of Eric Church’s The Outsiders last week, the biggest music release last week, as well as Frankie Ballard’s Sunshine & Whiskey, but I’ll make sure I give Cole Swindell some press. Why – well he’s a newbie. It is always difficult to breakthrough, particularly in the crowded market of country male singers. Think about it folks, how many new country male artists have come and tried to dint the charts? Additionally, there seem to be fewer country female artists lately for whatever reason. Regardless, Cole is the latest artist looking for a breakthrough.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones
Half the City
Single Lock Records
Don’t let folks tell you that soul is dead – it ain’t. St. Paul & The Broken Bones, a Birmingham, Alabama based sextet, releases their soulful debut, Half The City on Tuesday. There is a distinct difference between soul and contemporary R&B; his band is about the authenticity of soul. Kudos St. Paul, kudos.
In recent times, rapper Talib Kweli hasn’t exactly lit up the charts (2007’s Eardrum Warner Bros. album did manage a no. 2 bow on the Billboard 200), but he keeps on releasing albums. This year, following 2013’s Prisoner of Consciousness, TK releases Gravitas. With a shortage of rap in 2013 – until the big-time Schoolboy Q release on February 25th – TK might just be the album to tide rap fans over.
City Heart Southern Soul
Underrated as albeit, Noel Gourdin quietly releases his third album, City Heart Southern Soul via Shanachie Records. Gourdin’s previous efforts came courtesy of two different labels – major label Epic and indie powerhouse eOne. Gourdin is no household name and likely will never achieve such status, but having personally reviewed his previous two LPs, I can attest to the fact that Gourdin is no slouch. The man can sing! Don’t sleep on him either!
Lost in the Trees
Who exactly is Lost in the Trees? Lost in the Trees is an indie-rock/pop group led by Ari Picker. The group’s 2012 LP A Church That Fits Our Needs was an exceptional album that tackled the topic of Picker’s mother’s suicide. Sure it had its sad moments given the heavy topic, but it was masterfully done. One of the year’s most underrated and overlooked albums, A Church That Fits Our Needs truly showed off Lost in the Trees’ musicianship and incredible potential, blending sound compositional technique and exceptional lyricism. 2014 effort Past Life certainly has a tough act to follow, but it’s definitely worth checking out to see what this creative collective comes up with.
On her third album Deep Down, vocalist Dana Salzman presents herself as a premiere eclectic artist, delivering a mix of jazz, funk, and hip-hop. Throughout the 16-track album, Salzman’s musicianship shines through both her nuanced pipes as well as her thoughtful arrangements. A trained pianist, under the tutelage of her mother (a notable Russian pianist), as well as the recipient of a degree in jazz from the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, Salzman definitely has no shortage of musical knowledge. Besides her formal background though, Salzman also possesses that natural music intuition, which is apparent throughout Deep Down. An enjoyable listen from start to finish, Deep Down is a musical gift of which everyone should partake.
The bright spots are abundant for Salzman. Opener “Joy” (featuring Valentino) definitely sets the tone of Deep Down, with its pronounced jazz cues and specifically its embrace of the electric piano. Tasteful urban synths enhance the overall timbre. For the nerdy, perceptive listener (HA!) the timbrel contrast with the use of piano (acoustic as opposed to electric patch) following Valentino’s guest verse is an incredibly thoughtful one. Speaking of Valentino, another sound musical contrast is vocally between him and Salzman. “Joy” may not even be the best track from Deep Down but examined microscopically, there is a wealth of musical excellence to behold as a listener.
“All For You” is a definite highlight, finding Salzman embracing both her singing voice as well as her hip-hop side. Regardless whether she is singing or rapping, Salzman’s agile, rhythmic vocals are a pro. The crossover between soul, jazz, and hip-hop could’ve been an epic fail in others’ hands, but Salzman makes it work out magnificently. The chorus isn’t what might be called ‘deep’ lyrically, but it definitely unifies the song: “This is all, this is all, this is all for you / day and night / give my all, give my all, give it all for you / love you right.” Throw in some scatting and a hip vamp on “rather be with you tonight baby” and “All For You” is loaded.
“I’m Ready” finds Salzman collaborating with Rappin’ 4-Tay and Samuelle Prater with respectable results. Sensual sounding backing vocals definitely enhance this ‘romantic’ number of which Salzman states “I’m ready, ready to go deep with you / I’m ready / what you wanna do?” Better yet is “Because Of You (live)”, one of several live cuts to grace the album. Like later proceeding live cuts “Hunger (live)”, “Sometimes (live)”, and “Rollercoaster (live)”, the atmosphere truly captures the singer at her musical peak. While live authenticity is truly hard if not impossible to capture even on a live recording that has been released via CD or digital formats, the listener still gets a good idea and feel of what these performances were like in their original setting. That is definitely further testament to the level of musicianship that Salzman possesses.
Like several of the live cuts, there are also studio versions. “Rollercoaster”, a standout, first appears in studio form, once more featuring Rappin’ 4-Tay and Valentino. Opening with a level of mysteriousness, a sensual vibe is established. If the musical backdrop itself didn’t signal this sensual nature, the lyrics certainly confirm it. The chorus obviously has the bedroom in mind: “Ah, put your body on me.” That said, it is Valentino’s line from his guest verse that is even more suggestive, if cleverly so: “Your body is a lock, you’re giving me the key / it’s telling me that this is what you really need.” Ooh la la, Ooh la la!
In between two live cuts, “Again” has more of a contemporary R&B sound compared to other cuts. One of the notable moments is when there is a touch of reggae, which perfectly fits within the song. Worthy of individual isolation is “Sometimes (live)”, a cut that begins deceptively slow with its pianistic intro, but transforms into a groovy, complete soulful performance. Salzman as always is on her game, but she isn’t alone in her artistry. A fine electric guitar solo proves to be one of many sound musical touches. Later on, “Real Thing”, again featuring Samuelle Prater delivers a duet with extraordinary vocal chemistry. Additionally, having those jazzy piano harmonies don’t hurt.
“Fill It Up” adds some trumpet to the mix, another example of how timbre and timbrel contrast play a vital role to the success of this album. The bass line, yet another instrumental specific, also pleases the ear given its activeness. Following a feistily titled “Instant Climax”, “Mountain” should appeal to those who love the six-eight meter/groove of gospel music. Slow and relaxed, the bluesy “Mountain” is yet another side of Salzman that contributes to the complete package that is Deep Down. Vocally, one of the best moments is when Salzman ascends into her upper register; now that’s swag! Even the tracks not mentioned have ample redeeming qualities, with all deserved of their inclusion on this LP.
Ultimately, Deep Down is a fine album that appeals to multiple musical bases. There is very little to quibble about, but clocking in at over an hour in duration, nitpicking might suggest that the effort is too long. Otherwise, Salzman flexes her musical abilities magnificently, impressing much more often than not. If you have never heard of Salzman or have failed to check her out, you should; she’s the total package with ample things to offer. As for Deep Down – well – it receives my blessing.
“All For You”; “Because of You (live)”; “Rollercoaster”; “Sometimes (live)”; “Real Thing”; “Mountain”
Ah, Valentines Day – my favorite celebratory day! NOT! While I’m not one who’s big on Cupid, I’ll at least share with the lovers everywhere in the spirit of music. Earlier, I penned a genuine list of legit Valentines songs. However, why not have fun with a certain raunchy R&B artist by the name of R. Kelly? Face it, Kells is plumb nasty and has a discography full of risqué, over-the-top songs that are definitely NOT love songs. Sure, Kelly has written some love songs too, but he seems to prosper in the realm of all things sexual. Here are 10 raunchy songs from Kelly for Valentines Day. Let your inner-freak awaken… or just shake your head like I do every time I hear any of these songs.
Toni Braxton and Babyface make some sweet, classy music on Love Marriage & Divorce
Toni Braxton & Babyface • Love Marriage & Divorce • Motown • US Release Date: February 4, 2014
There’s just something special when two R&B veterans collaborate together. Honestly, when your career has past its peak, why not come together and try to rekindle the magic – after all, isn’t two better than one? Adult contemporary R&B artists Toni Braxton and Babyface definitely have a special thing going on with their collaborative album, Love Marriage & Divorce. Both are past their prime as R&B ‘royalty’ (Babyface still relatively popular as a producer and songwriter), but on this classy effort, both offer nothing short of their best vocally. Love Marriage & Divorce isn’t ‘new’ in the ‘fresh’ sense, but Braxton and Babyface definitely flex their seasoned R&B muscles, which may be more relevant at this point. And innovation aside, many can at least relate to one of the three words of the title, right? Right!
“Roller Coaster” opens Love Marriage & Divorce, setting the adult contemporary R&B tone. The production is pleasant, without being overdone in the least. Babyface leads the charge on the verses, with Braxton completing them (think pre-chorus). The memorable refrain unifies the standout: “When love is like a roller coaster / always up and down / when love takes over / your emotion spins you ‘round and ‘round…when love is like a roller coaster.” Ultimately, Braxton and Babyface end up being a perfect match for one another, sporting sound vocal chemistry.
“Sweat” proceeds, featuring conservative production work that is refined; the sound is smooth and nothing too flashy. Again, Babyface initiates the vocals, while Braxton settles for the back half of the verses and drives the refrain home. “Sweat” is as close as the duo gets to ‘sex’, masking its sensuality through suggestiveness in the ‘grown-folks’ style. This classy approach is appreciated and a departure in contemporary music, something many younger artists could benefit from – subtlety. Little feels risqué with the duo handling lyrics like “So if you really wanna fight / we could take it to the bed tonight (let’s sweat it out) / and if you really wanna scream, I can make you scream tonight (let’s sweat it out)”. Perhaps if R. Kelly were performing it, well that would be a different matter completely. Not as notable as the opener, “Sweat” isn’t too shabby either.
“Hurt You” benefits from its pacing, taking its time to settle in. In other words, the second verse is more developed than the first musically, which eliminates predictability, had “Hurt You” revealed all the cards early. The alternating vocals on the refrain are a nice touch from the duo, giving “Hurt You” more personality and oomph. As far as songwriting, “Hurt You” is one of the very best. The bridge exemplifies this sentiment: “Can we start over again / can we start baby as friends / give you one more try / the tender kisses you give to me/ would be the only thing I ever need”. “Where Did We Go Wrong?” follows “Hurt You, proving to be equally notable. The clarity of vocals from both artists is stunningly beautiful. Babyface’s falsetto sounds as pure as ever. He sounds as if he’s not aged a bit. Like everything else, “Where Did We Go Wrong?” is smooth and refined.
Babyface and Toni Braxton each take a solo track following “Where Did We Go Wrong?”. Both are well done in their own right, if not necessarily standouts. “I Hope You’re Okay” is Babyface’s sole solo track, with the legendary R&B singer/songwriter sounding incredibly positive and chivalrous on the mid-tempo cut. Babyface’s light and agile vocals are perfectly suited for such a cut. On “I Wish”, the sound contrasts, with Braxton wishing for her ex to suffer as much if not more than she did at his hands. The piano accompaniment serves as perfect inspiration for Braxton to ‘tell it like it is.’ Both songs show off the respective strengths of each, though “I Hope That You’re Okay” might get the slightest edge over “I Wish”.
“Take It Back” finds the duo reconvening. The results are positive once again, though “Take It Back” suffers a bit too much from its sameness. The sentiment here is that a bit more differentiation could’ve made this particular cut more exciting. “Reunited” is stronger, a song about reconnecting and rekindling the love. Braxton drives home the bridge, which leads to a dramatic key change. By the close, Braxton and Babyface have ‘let loose’, pouring their emotions into this cut. Braxton takes another solo spot on “I’d Rather Be Broke”, arguably even better than “I Wish”. Still, Braxton has been shaken up by her love troubles, singing “I’d rather be broke then with you…” Sure it’s simple, but the message that ‘there’s nothing worse than a woman scorned’ is easily conveyed.
Penultimate track “Heart Attack” might be the best of the entire album. Up-tempo with a mix of adult contemporary R&B and neo-disco, “Heart Attack” is easily the most unique number if nothing more. It certainly doesn’t sound ‘old’, an argument that could be posed in regards to some of the other album tracks. Babyface handles the verses, with Braxton handling the addictive refrain: “You know you want me back / you up here ‘bout to have a heart attack / you know you know you know you want it bad / that’s why you ‘bout to have a heart attack.” “The D Word” can’t match the intensity of “Heart Attack”, but it is an appropriate closer, tackling the divorce aspect of Love Marriage & Divorce. “I put the papers on your doorstep,” sings Babyface on the first verse. “The keys under the mat / although the lawyer said to mail you / I’m still not over it.” All about the pain of divorce and losing someone special, “The D Word” puts a cap on a solid album.
All in all, Love Marriage & Divorce is a pleasant R&B album. It’s not what you might pen as an innovative tour de force, but it is very well done overall. Vocally, both Braxton and Babyface sound incredible, particularly being past their artistic peaks. It likely isn’t an album that will appeal to the present generation of R&B listeners who prefer more eclecticism and hip-hop stirred in, but for the traditionalist and ‘grown folks’, Love Marriage & Divorce should be right up their alley.
“Roller Coaster”; “Hurt You”; “Where Did We Go Wrong?”; “Heart Attack”
Studdard is in excellent voice on the relatively safe Unconditional Love
Ruben Studdard • Unconditional Love • Verve • US Release Date: February 4, 2014
On February 4th, R&B artist Ruben Studdard released his sixth album, Unconditional Love. It is hard to believe that the “Velvet Teddy Bear” has released six albums. Unless you’re an avid Studdard follower, you are likely in the dark about many of Studdard’s albums given their underrated, quiet release. Studdard’s career went “south” commercially following gold-selling gospel album, I Need An Angel. On Unconditional Love, the perception given from Studdard – newly signed to Verve – is that he just wants to make music. An album where the majority of songs are covers, Unconditional Love isn’t innovative in the least, or particularly exciting, but finds the singer is in excellent voice. Safe it is Unconditional Love also seems to fit Studdard’s musical personality as an adult contemporary R&B singer. Don’t call it the next masterwork, but Unconditional has its moments.
The effort opens with a vocal standard, “The Nearness of You”. The interpretation is executed in a light, soulful approach, with Studdard sounding very similar to a mellow Marvin Gaye. Perhaps it’s a bit ‘sleepy’ to open the album, but Studdard sings extremely well, never breaking a sweat…figuratively speaking. He follows up with Teddy Pendergrass’ beloved classic, “Close The Door”. As with “The Nearness of You”, Studdard definitely has the chops to convincingly pull off the soul gem. The problem is, it is so similar to the original, it doesn’t allow for Studdard to infuse much extra that we haven’t already experienced with the original. Sure, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but for an artist who has struggled with commercial aspirations as of late, Studdard could take more risks.
If “Close The Door” could be considered an obvious song for Studdard to cover, “Love, Look What You’ve Done To Me” is a bit more unexpected. The Boz Scaggs classic receives sound treatment in Studdard’s hands, though it takes a while for it to ‘percolate’. By the end, Studdard allows himself to truly take over the song. Safety seems to be this album’s M.O., with a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” sounding incredibly ‘true to the script’. Don’t get me wrong – it’s freaking beautiful – but many people (including Tank just a couple of years back) have covered it. Quibbles aside, the backing vocals are certainly a nice touch, not to mention Studdard’s ad-libs on near the end. Another slower cut follows in “Hello Again” (Neil Diamond). While the set is all about ‘unconditional love’, at this point, the lushness and tempo come off a bit lethargic. Like “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, some of Studdard’s best energy comes near the close.
By the arrival of “Love, Love, Love” (Donny Hathaway), the groovier, mid-tempo is more than welcome. “Love, Love, Love” is still quite ‘old-fashioned’, but it has a bit more life compared to the ballads. Face it, horns, strings, and organ make things better. It also doesn’t hurt that Studdard exhibits more personality here. As pretty as “They Long To Be (Close To You)” is, it definitely lacks flashiness or innovative spirit. Studdard’s duet with Lalah Hathaway, “If This Word Were Mine” is a much better, more exciting showing. The vocal chemistry is definitely a selling point, as is the particular arrangement of the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic. Perhaps it doesn’t supersede a Grammy-nominated version courtesy of Alicia Keys and Jermaine Paul from the So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross compilation, but it is a fine take.
“My Love” (Paul McCartney) is incredibly energetic and feel-good. Sure, The Velvet Teddy Bear is exceptional at big ballads, but he can also lose some of the stodginess when the tempo is a bit quicker or lays somewhere in the middle. The standard version of Unconditional Love closes with two originals. “Unconditional” proves to be lovely, soulful ballad, co-written by pop songwriting standouts Toby Gad and Lindy Robbins. “Meant To Be” is the final statement, co-written by numerous folks including Studdard, David Foster, and Charlie Midnight. As for the deluxe version, Studdard covers Michael Bublé’s “Home” (tempo seems a smidgen too slow) and Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” (receives more contemporary R&B treatment than the original). Unless one is just married to hearing ‘Roo-ben’ tackle those two popular cuts, the standard edition suffices.
Verdict? Unconditional Love is an enjoyable, if safe album that finds Studdard at the top of his game vocally. After years of experience, albeit somewhat underrated following his commercial success, Studdard is a much better vocalist at this point in his career. Unfortunately, Unconditional Love will likely only play to more mature fans and won’t win back the audience who was thrilled with say “Sorry 2004” or even the Big Boy anthem “What Is Sexy?” Still, if “Superstar” was Studdard’s true ‘ace in the hole’, then maybe Unconditional Love as a whole is just what the doctor ordered. Personally, my opinion lies somewhere in the middle.
“The Nearness of You”; “Love, Love, Love”; “If This World Were Mine” featuring Lalah Hathaway; “My Love”; “Unconditional”