Though she only finished in seventh place, Chicago sweetheart Jennifer Hudson won much of America's hearts when she emerged as a fresh young voice evoking a mix of old-school legends Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Whitney Houston during the third season of "American Idol" in 2004.
Unlike so many participants in that saccharine pop phenomenon, Hudson seemed like a real woman -- someone who'd sung in church choir and at local talent shows in between working at Burger King, pursuing her dream with a gig on a Disney Cruise Line before finally finding fame at the haughty feet of Simon Cowell. And while she didn't walk away with first place, Hudson was a big winner nonetheless, going on to land an Oscar for the film "Dreamgirls" and co-starring in the summer hit "Sex in the City."
Now, after an inexplicable and unconscionable delay in this accelerated era of five-second attention spans, Hudson finally has delivered her self-titled major-label debut, which arrives in stores today. Sad to say, not only is it not worth the wait, but in typical "American Idol" fashion, it's an overworked, overwrought, shamelessly pandering piece of pop product unworthy of her considerable talents and largely devoid of the personality that made us love her in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, the prime culprit here is "Idol"-connected veteran musical mafiosa and papmeister supreme Clive Davis, who oversaw the crafting of the disc by recruiting a list of unimaginative mainstream producers, including the Norwegian duo Stargate and Timbaland (that overworked Midas), and corralling assorted collaborators such as schlock hit songwriter Diane Warren, blue-eyed soul man Robin Thicke and ubiquitous cameo rappers Ludacris and T-Pain.
Given a 26-year-old voice more than capable of excelling in any genre, Davis and his conspirators decided to try and provide something for everyone, from pop gospel (a glossed-up version of "Jesus Promised Me a Home Over There") to middle-of-the-road R&B (the first single "Spotlight"), and from Broadway bombast (we get a reprise of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls") to pseudo-street hip-pop (with an especially embarrassing, would-be sassy anthem of female empowerment that finds Hudson awkwardly protesting, "Don't make me hit you with my pocketbook!").
None of it is original, little of it is memorable and all of it makes you yearn to wipe away the audio gauze and smarmy distraction for a glimpse of the real Jennifer.
Of course, Hudson herself is not without guilt. "I consider [my] voice a tree with many branches, and that's what this album reflects," she said in one recent interview, honing to the record company line in defending the pop smorgasbord approach. Sadly, if we follow that analogy, "Jennifer Hudson" is an utterly fake potted plastic plant rather than a tall and regal oak or elm on the shores of Lake Michigan, and it's hard to imagine that her time among the Hollywood palm trees has robbed her of her ability to tell the difference.
Ah, well: At least you still have the movies, homegirl. In addition to recently announcing her engagement to David Otunga, a k a Punk from VH1's "I Love New York 2," Hudson appears in two movies opening this fall, "Winged Creatures" with Forest Whitaker and Dakota Fanning and "The Secret Life of Bees" with Fanning, Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah.