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Album Review: Ruben Studdard - 'Letters From Birmingham'

Idle No More

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Album Review: Ruben Studdard - 'Letters From Birmingham'
It seems odd, but even after being a household name for almost a decade, former "American Idol" champ Ruben Studdard is apparently just now hitting his stride as an R&B singer. His latest album, Letters From Birmingham, released in the U.S. March 13, 2012, is definitely the most well-rounded and personal project of his career. At times in the past, Ruben's music has been criticized as being too bland and emotionally vacant, but that's definitely not the case here. Letters From Birmingham, which is Ruben's sixth album overall and first for Shanachie Entertainment, truly makes him seem like an American idol, and not an idle American.

Spreading His Wings

Ruben Studdard's Letters From Birmingham takes it's title from Letter From a Birmingham Jail, an open letter penned in April 1963 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after he'd been arrested in Alabama. Ruben, a Birmingham, Alabama native, doesn't delve into political content on the album, however; the overarching concept of the album is the evolution of a relationship, from lust at first site (as expressed on the first song, "Turn You Out") to taking your time in getting to know someone better ("Do It Right" featuring Chrisette Michele), to getting married and living happily ever after ... or not. As the album unfolds, each song acts as a sort of audio "letter" where Ruben expresses his thoughts and feelings along each step of the journey.
The aforementioned "Turn You Out" is maybe the perfect example of the difference between today's Ruben and the one of yesterday. The song is a funky, bass guitar and horn punctuated jam where Ruben confidently sings directly to a woman about how good he is between the sheets: "When I give it to ya, you gon' wanna shout, you gon' tell the whole world what I'm all about ... some come on in the room girl, baby don't be scared." It's hard to imagine the Ruben Studdard of eight or nine years ago, fresh off an "American Idol" victory releasing, or even recording such as a song. Even though it contains no profanity, the innuendo is heavy enough that his label at the time, J Records, probably wouldn't have wanted to jeopardize his squeaky-clean, nice guy image. But freed from such constraints, Ruben has taken the opportunity to spread his creative wings.

Career Boost

Ruben also gets sexy and saucy on "Wear Me," a mid-tempo power ballad where he sings about how he wishes he could take the place of his woman's clothes: "Wear me like Gucci, wear me like Louis (Vuitton), girl take it off just to put me on." The song's fun and breezy tone allows the more playful aspects Ruben's personality to come across on the track, something hasn't been the case on his previous work, which tended to be fairly bland. Another song where his creative growth is on display is his surprising remake of the song "Pure Imagination," originally recorded by Gene Wilder for the classic film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory." Ruben's version completely reimagines the tune, brilliantly flipping it on its head and changing it from a fantastical children's tune into a love song. It's this kind of outside-the-box thinking that separates truly creative artists from the norm. He also shines on the album's other remake, an updated version of Bobby Brown's '80s classic "Rock Wit'Cha." Where the original was more upbeat, Ruben's is a slower, more tender, and more sweetly sung ballad.
The album climaxes, so to speak, with the final track, "June 28th (I'm Single)." The title refers to both the date of Ruben's 2008 wedding, as well as his divorce three-and-a-half years later. On the bittersweet tune, which is maybe the album's most personal, he sings about how his wife Surata gave him conflicting signals: "You don't really want to fix us but you act like you don't wanna break up, I can't wait around for you to make up your mind." But by midway through the song he makes it clear that he's ready to move on, telling the ladies "when you see me on the street, don't be scared to speak."
Overall, this is clearly the best and most personal album of Ruben's career. The combination of being freed from the image management of "American Idol" and the creative freedom allowed by one of the best independent music labels around, Shanachie Entertainment, has given Ruben the boost he needed to revive his career and remain a relevant and successful artist.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the record label. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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