Jennifer Hudson's Prime Time

Hudson's dynamic voice carries the day on a CD that aims to please too many tastes.
Hudson's dynamic voice carries the day on a CD that aims to please too many tastes. (By Peter Kramer -- Associated Press)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

You blew it, America.

Four years ago, the democratic process went awry and you voted for the wrong candidate.

I refer, of course, to the third season of "American Idol," during which you -- the voting public -- somehow didn't see fit to promote the occasionally brilliant R&B singer Jennifer Hudson into the upper-echelon of the Top 12.

Oops on you.

Thankfully, Hudson never did drop out, slaying audiences with a show-stopping version of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" in the 2006 movie adaptation of "Dreamgirls," and taking an Oscar. That was followed by a memorable supporting role in the "Sex in the City" movie (she was basically the only black person in Carrie Bradshaw's New York City) and an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, where Hudson sang the national anthem at the request of one Barack Obama.

Now comes the 27-year-old ex-cruise-ship singer's self-titled debut album, a variable set that includes some truly outstanding moments -- enough of them, certainly, to remind "Idol" voters just how wrong they got it in 2004.

Hudson appeared to be among the show's most formidable contestants, with a winning personality and a gale-force voice that she seemed well-equipped to use. But she was eliminated in seventh place, while a bunch of forgettable performers moved on, including John Stevens, Jasmine Trias and George Huff.

Diana DeGarmo ( who?!?) advanced to the finals, ultimately losing to Fantasia Barrino, perhaps the only contestant who could have given Hudson a real fight for the "Idol" tiara.

How fitting, then, that Fantasia appears on "Jennifer Hudson," engaging her would-be rival in an all-out diva brawl: "I'm His Only Woman," an explosive duet in which the two powerhouse singers go to war over a man by the name of Tony. The vocal missiles are launched in staggering succession as the divas turn increasingly incensed, and Hudson winds up winning in a knockout as she proves to be the more forceful and nimble singer, with a vocal tone that sounds superior next to Fantasia's crazed-woman screeching.

It's one of the album's standouts, in large part because Hudson is so emotionally charged -- like a modern-day Chaka, or maybe Mary J. Blige without the chronic pitch problem.

Hudson knows from indignation and heartache, as she first proved in her performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," the emotional centerpiece of "Dreamgirls." Though it's associated with the musical's most tragic character, Effie White, the tricky song has become Hudson's melodramatic signature and is thus reprised on her debut, sandwiched between a soaring hip-hop ballad, "Invisible," and the album-closing gospel song, "Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There."

The sequencing almost doesn't matter, though, given that Hudson is all over the place stylistically as she attempts to be all things to all people -- or, at least, to all hip-hop, gospel, soul and pop fans, with the album's army of songwriters and producers jerking her from idiom to idiom.

Opener "Spotlight" -- the album's lead single, co-written by the R&B hitmaker Ne-Yo -- is a tepid, mid-tempo song in which Hudson sounds restrained almost to the point of being dispassionate. "Pocketbook" is a likable, Timbaland-produced, Ludacris-featuring hip-hop song in which Hudson warns an aggressive suitor to back off, lest he get smacked by her purse.

The Robin Thicke-penned "Giving Myself" is an emotional, devotional soul showcase, a classic piano ballad designed to show off Hudson's big, brassy voice. "What's Wrong (Go Away)" is a modern R&B song duet with T-Pain that's ruined by his exotic, robotic auto-tuned vocals. "You Pulled Me Through" is a perfectly treacly slice of inspirational contemporary pop written by the queen of contemporary-pop treacle, Diane Warren.

The credits on "Jennifer Hudson" include more than two dozen songwriters and nearly as many producers, a debut-by-committee approach that has record mogul Clive Davis's fingerprints all over it. Davis, the album's lead producer, never met a demographic he didn't want to court, but his vision, such as it is, works against Hudson by preventing her from establishing a clear artistic identity on the very album that bears her name.

Still, the woman who coulda -- and shoulda -- been a contender shows plenty enough on her debut to reinforce that she's a major talent whose career will be worth following.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Giving Myself," "I'm His Only Woman," "Pocketbook"

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