God bless Jennifer Hudson. She showed grace and dignity in the wake of an unspeakable personal tragedy and continues to show even greater poise in refraining from strangling red-carpet reporters when they ask her condescending questions about her “new body,” visibly relieved that they no longer have to talk euphemistically about her “curves” or about her being a role model for plus-sized girls. Add in her Oscar and Grammy wins, and it’s clear that Hudson’s career is riding a formidable wave of public goodwill against which a music critic is pretty much powerless. Good thing: I’ve been a fan of Hudson since she got an inexplicably early boot from the American Idol stage, and I’d hate to think I was detracting from her future success by pointing out that her sophomore album, I Remember Me, is pretty mediocre.
Having previously reviewed albums by Leona Lewis and Adele, I feel that I’m running out of ways to say that listening to a diva possessed of a fully banging set of pipes as she tears through a set of okay-to-terrible songs is not an especially satisfying way to spend 40 minutes. Ryan Tedder is a recurring motif in these reviews. I actually tried to deny the full and implacable reach of my disdain for the man while discussing Adele’s 21, saying cryptic but ultimately genial things about his “Rumor Has It,” but now I’m forced to resume our one-sided catfight because here he is, writing “Bleeding Love”/“Halo”/“Already Gone” for the 13th time. Except this time it’s so much worse. “I Remember Me” is the centerpiece of Hudson’s album, since it’s both the title track and the only song on which she gets a co-writing credit. The words “I remember me” are repeated over and over again each time Hudson takes a show-boating lap around the chorus; nevertheless, I can’t say I have any idea what that phrase is supposed to mean beyond some vague gesture of self-affirmation. The song plods and twinkles in equal measure.
I Remember Me makes tepid improvements on Hudson’s self-titled debut: At least this time her handlers passed on the distracting rap cameos and dialed down the Auto-Tuning, setting out to give a proper showcase to Hudson’s powerhouse vocals. Even so, most of the album’s hooks contain gratuitous overdubs, and when Hudson is allowed to take the spotlight, she’s liable to overcook the vocal melodies in the pandering, applause-line style that every American Idol competitor learns to live by. Hearing a vocalist of Hudson’s caliber should inspire gratitude in the listener, but the desperate theatricality on display here (Ne-Yo’s ghastly “Why Is It So Hard” is indicative) proves that Hudson’s producers simply don’t understand how to showcase a natural talent.
The sense that Hudson’s singularity was lost on the I Remember Me team is reinforced by the fact that we’ve heard almost all of these songs before. The album’s first half lines up by-the-numbers urban-pop jams from Tedder, Stargate, and R. Kelly, whereas the second positions Hudson for an adult-contemporary crossover, employing—no surprise here—a gaudy Diane Warren ballad that climaxes with Hudson doing Whitney-style runs over timpani rolls and gushing strings. God help us if that little number blows up on the radio.
Of all the songwriters who will get paychecks out of this mess, only Alicia Keys seems more dedicated to helping Hudson craft a distinctive persona than to off-loading her second-tier songs. Her two disco-flavored contributions, “Everybody Needs Love” and “Don’t Look Down,” are far from great, but they’re fun, and there’s a moment on the former where Hudson does some comically over-the-top wailing, only to be heard laughing at her own too-muchness as the band grooves along behind her. It’s the purest glimpse at Hudson’s personality that I Remember Me affords, and one of the only moments where she sounds like the star that she should by all rights become.