Ruben Studdard | Letters from Birmingham


Ruben Studdard
Letters from Birmingham
By Peggy Oliver

Who might have thought that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s passionate open “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” would have generated a title for an R&B-fueled concept album?  While Ruben Studdard was planning his next recording project, a thought dawned on him during a trip to Atlanta as he observed a display of King, Jr.  It just happened to be that Studdard was more than well acquainted with the celebrated civil rights leader’s reflections of racial segregation while being held in a jail cell, considering the former “American Idol” winner is Birmingham born and raised.

Needless to say, the concept for Studdard’s latest release, Letters from Birmingham, is a far cry from King, Jr.’s original text.  In this case, Studdard and longtime collaborator Harold Lilly conceived the idea of a twenty-first century contemporary urban soundtrack consisting of various love letters detailing the emotions behind dating, marriage and divorce; based upon the recent crossroads Studdard arrived at in his personal life.  With four projects under his belt since his “Idol” triumph, and persevering through harsh critiques and industry pressure, Studdard relishes the opportunity within Letters from Birmingham to finally exercise full creative license, including choosing the songwriters that can best express his musical storylines.

The strongest asset on Letters from Birmingham is Studdard’s velvety, expressive voice, which is convincingly poignant, playful and powerful.  This Shanachie Entertainment release opens with a roar with two sexually charged tracks: “Turn U Out,” showing off Studdard’s gritty blues edge topped off with a tantalizing live horn funk blast, and “Wear Me,” feeding off the ‘Price is Right’-like hooks while firing off humorous darts: “Wear me like Gucci.”  Two particular tracks echo Studdard’s respect for eighties R&B.  “Love Skies” illustrates the pure excitement of meeting someone special with a personalized weather forecast: “A break from the rainy days.”  Studdard takes several liberties on Bobby Brown’s 1988 R&B smash, “Rock Wit’cha,” by increasing the steamy factor with a much slower pace and adding a female voice in K Michelle – all with exceptional effect.  In another duet, Chrisette Michele and Studdard’s voices are perfectly synched throughout the bass bumping, “Do It Right,” a lesson on the temptation of heeding to that one night stand too early.  The atmospheric, reflective “Today (Hallelujah)” signifies the moment after the wedding vows are taken: “It was worth everything.”   At the other extreme, desperation builds on “What’s The Reason,” with plenty of concern as to why the marriage is starting to crumble.  Finally, “June 28th (I’m Single)” lends itself to a dramatic transition; from the attempts to keep the marriage together to the realization that it is time to move on: “So if you see me on the street/Don’t be afraid to speak.”

Though the concepts behind Letters from Birmingham register fairly well, there are a couple of stumbling blocks.  The main offender is Studdard’s choice of “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 musical film “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory,” where the original lyrics exploring a child’s wide-eyed imagination are transformed into an awkward love fantasy scenario.  The other issue lies in the paper-thin synthesized orchestrations on several tracks.  Despite those pitfalls, Letters from Birmingham reveals Studdard’s continued drive to mature in his artistry and as a classy R&B/soul stylist.

Peggy Oliver
The Urban Music Scene