Barring some major transformation, Jennifer Hudson will forever be on the verge of tearing the roof off with her volcanic instrument—a role that allows for little artistic flexibility, or for the subtleties that make for compelling recorded music. Her muscular, sometimes metallic timbre automatically associates her with the deep-soul tradition, but unlike the best of her forebears, there’s nothing emotionally revealing about her performances: Both on and off record, she’s remained affable but strangely detached.
With the aid of ever-clueless svengali Clive Davis, Hudson’s attempts to find a place for herself in today’s R&B market have yielded a consistently dull discography, one that seems targeted at an adult-contemporary audience that prefers its divas bloodless and buttoned-up. Her club-ready third album, JHUD, is an ostensible shift in gears, but it mistakes beats for an actual pulse. In the past, Hudson has dabbled in dance (notably on the excellent “Don’t Look Down,” off 2011’s I Remember Me), but it’s always seemed like only a matter of time before she fully committed to the genre, which has long served as a refuge for big, flamboyant voices.
On paper, stacking one shimmery bauble on top of another would seem like an opportunity for Hudson to unleash the sass she’s never before convincingly summoned. And the idea of liberating the soul diva from the obligations of dreary, middle-of-the-road balladry calls to mind Whitney Houston’s own third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, which chased contemporary dance and new jack swing to some sublime results.
But while the 10-track JHUD endears itself by being compact, nearly everything on it sounds recycled, from the predominantly lukewarm grooves to her unvaried vocal style. In 2014, there’s nothing more complacent than trying to reinvent yourself with a Pharrell-helmed nü-disco jam. Like all of the songs on the album’s first half, lead single “I Can’t Describe” has a vintage sheen that taps into the same ’70s nostalgia that made “Blurred Lines” a hit last year. Adorned with twinkly synth sounds and overdubs, it wears its feel-good vibes like the latest fashion, but the melody is so lacking in dynamism it would have been more suited to a far less gifted vocalist. By song’s end, Hudson sounds like she’s itching to be released from the straitjacket.
Both singer and producer work up more of a sweat on the album’s best track, the Iggy Azalea-assisted “He Ain’t Going Nowhere.” Kicking off with bursts of throbbing bass, the song casts Hudson as a sex guru teaching her female fans how to keep their men horny. While her advice (“Whisper in his ear, it makes it hotter”) skews PG-13, her delivery reveals a newfound salaciousness. Hudson’s bellowing lower register has always seemed forced and affected, like a display of range for range’s sake, but here she dips into it with playful carnality, like foreplay before the chorus’s orgasm of gospel squalls.
While Pharrell provides the album’s high and low points, other collaborators dish out a few forgettable pleasures. R. Kelly gets closest to simulating authentic disco on “It’s Your World,” and even throws in a fun verse that indulges his menacingly low baritone, but nothing about the song demands repeated listening. “Walk It Out” has all the hallmarks of a Timbaland track, including an Aaliyah reference, but it becomes clear he’s uncomfortable with such a powerful vocalist, as he drowns her out with layers of stuttering production and his own pitiful rapping.
JHUD winds down with two ballads, as if to placate the disappointed customer. On “Bring Back the Music,” she plays the tired back-in-the-day card, lamenting the demise of real R&B and calling forth its spirit with girl-group harmonies. There’s a sweet Sparkle swing here, but the message keeps her pigeonholed as a steely, old-fashioned diva. Much more riveting is the album closer “Moan,” a cry from the depths addressed to her late mother, who was murdered in 2008. At seven minutes, this contemplative gospel epic is not without flaws: Hudson continues to struggle when singing lighter and lower, and the melody meanders without really making an impression. But in the way it elegantly defines music as a means of confronting and transcending the incomprehensible, it should serve as a heartrending manifesto for soul singers everywhere.