Where, oh where is R. Kelly when you need him? Or Pharrell Williams, or Ne-Yo? While Ruben Studdard’s crystalline tenor is as exquisite as ever on “Letters from Birmingham,” his new CD that hits stores and online music outlets Tuesday, March 13, the material is sorely lacking.
This 16-track “concept” album is based on a series of letters that chronicle a relationship, and appears to parallel Studdard’s two-year marriage, which ended in divorce. Most of the tracks are written by Elvis “Blac Elvis” Williams and Studdard’s longtime collaborator Harold Lilly, and feature redundant themes of blatant sexuality that simply don’t sound quite right coming from a romantic soul singer who was once dubbed “The Velvet Teddy Bear” by none other than Gladys Knight.
Not that Ruben can’t get his sexy on, but the repetitive “Baby, Ima do this, Baby, Ima do that,” or “Baby, take this off, Baby take that off,” that are present in such mundane tunes as “Turn You Out,” “Do It Rite” and “Twisted Love” sound much different coming from someone like Chris Brown than from Studdard, whose bona fide vocal chops allow much more room for subtlety. For instance, I’m pretty sure that Teddy Pendergrass’ simple but firm command to “Close the Door” would spark more of an emotional (and positive) response than “I’m ‘bout to turn you out!” But that’s just me.
While the production of the disc was slick and quite adventurous, in keeping with today’s standards, it also did not enhance Studdard’s strong points — mainly his ability to deliver a passionate performance. I doubt that anyone hates drum machines and synthesized tracks more than I do, and even with Studdard’s powerful pipes out in front, “Letters from Birmingham,” with few exceptions, has the soul-less sound of a single individual turning knobs and pressing buttons on an electronic keyboard and “clicking” away on a computer.
High points of the project include Studdard’s smooth interpretation of Bobby Brown’s “Rock Wit’cha” as well as “June 28th (I’m Single)” in which he reflects on the demise of his marriage and his desire to find love again.
It would be interesting to see what the Grammy-winning Philadelphia-based production/songwriting team of Ivan Barias and Carvin Haggins, who worked their magic with Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, Mary J. Blige, Justin Timberlake, Jazmine Sullivan and Jaheim, among many others, would do with a major voice such as Studdard’s. Their songs are creative, yet commercial, and are steeped in the timeless legacy of Philly Soul.
While “Letters from Birmingham” missed the mark for me, hopefully, this hot young production team will someday get the opportunity to deliver material that is truly worthy of Studdard’s amazing God-given instrument, considerable talent and lovable persona.