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”
Ruben Studdard • Unconditional Love • Verve • US Release Date: February 4, 2014