Jennifer Hudson sings this to open her second album, "I Remember Me," out next Tuesday, and we know it's an understatement. Good and bad, her life since entering American pop culture more than five years ago has been one of extremes -- many happy successes ("American Idol," an Oscar, a Grammy, a baby) and one big tragedy (her mother, brother and nephew murdered on Chicago's South Side in 2008). She's not lacking for emotional material to drive a soulful album.
"I Remember Me," though, is not possessed of a shred of blues, self-pity or vainglory. "I named it 'I Remember Me' because I feel like in 29 years I have lead over four different lives," she said last month on the red carpet at the Oscars. "It is a disc of everything I've been through." Start to finish, these dozen songs brim with optimism, a powerful sense of self and not so much confidence as a deep, deep faith.
By the second song, "I Got This," Hudson has side-stepped any empathy we might try to bring to the listening experience and is reassuring us that everything's OK. J-Hud's on the case, not to worry. "Every single breath, another step on my road / I'm from the South Side trying to get to my goal." She sings. "Ain't no stopping me / Come on, follow me if you feel the need / Better believe, I got this."
This is only Hudson's second album, but it's a comeback, of sorts -- a reclamation, a reboot, a liberation. She not only sounds good, she looks good, appearing on the cover newly svelte and telling Oprah Winfrey last month she'd lost 80 pounds -- partly because she was a Weight Watchers spokeswoman, partly because of her next movie role, playing Winnie Mandela in a biopic possibly out this fall. But what brought her back around after the tragedy, she told Newsweek in February, was what got her here in the first place: her voice. "My voice is one of the few things that hasn't dramatically changed in my life," she said. "Ten years ago, I was singing in Chicago theaters and living in my mom's house. That's all vanished. But I hear my voice, and I'm like, 'OK, that's me. That's the same girl I knew way back in high school, who used to drive her music teacher crazy by singing Aretha songs at the top of her lungs.'"
Her first album, 2008's self-titled effort, didn't sound like that girl. "Jennifer Hudson" (appropriately in quotes) tweaked her vocals with effects and crowded the studio with guests. That's what pop sounded like in 2008. Amazingly, Hudson recently described "I Remember Me" album as a stylistic "stab in the dark," but don't let her fool you. This is a clean, clear statement of exactly who Hudson is.
"I was listening to radio today and thinking, 'How am I gonna fit in?'" Hudson told Newsweek. "I mean, I'm not deaf to what's going on. If I was born in the '60s, I'd be right there with them. Every song I do or film role I get seems to fall right back in that era. But I'm here now and have to be able to make what I do work today. My grandmother didn't like all the fancy singing. She used to say 'stand flat-footed and sing!' That's what I do, and I'm not apologizing."
The success of "I Remember Me" is in the light touch of its various producers and songwriters, giving Hudson plenty of room to stand flat-footed and sing. On that opening track, "No One Gonna Love You," producer Rich Harrison dials everything back, including an interesting plunky muted piano, to showcase Hudson's voice, which builds slowly from ditty to diva in less than four minutes and never boils over. Deft and delicate rhythmic elements even help Hudson make the most of a typically treacly Diane Warren ballad ("Still Here"). The only thing that's overproduced is a fussy cover of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," which goes for baroque and spoils the magic of Simone's suggestive restraint.
Every song is mid-tempo, nothing's in a hurry. For Alicia Keys' "Angel," producer Swizz Beatz adds a structural snare drum underneath Keys' piano chords, and sometimes that's all there is next to Hudson's singing. She's got plenty of space to soar and swoop as the lyrics demand. No pyrotechnics, but when she sings about being "high above the ground," she sends her notes there. The same is true for "Don't Look Down," as close to a dance track as this album delivers.
By mid-album, "I Remember Me" forgets its mission. The title track, which sports Hudson's only co-writing credit here, slings clichés while the background clatter, specifically a bashing electronic drum, starts to become an issue. "Gone" lacks vocal steam, and the background voices sound like J-Hud 9000 robots. "Everybody Needs Love" is Pointer Sisters-by-numbers. Not all the production is perfect, either. "Where You At," written and produced by fellow South Sider R. Kelly, roars to a big finish with Hudson shouting, "Deliver!" until she rockets right off the treble clef -- just in time for an incredibly ill-advised fade-out.
She wraps up with Brooks & Dunn's "Believe," and when it arrives it's easy to be surprised by the realization that this is the first gospel we've heard on the whole album. Here she takes us back to church, complete with big choir and big finish.
"It's like a brand new me," Hudson told Oprah last month. "Sometimes I don't even recognize myself." She was speaking of her weight loss, but she might as well have been describing her performance. You haven't really left, but welcome back anyway, Jennifer.