Picks and Pans Review: Soulful

updated 01/12/2004 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/12/2004 01:00AM

R&B

Ruben Studdard

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Judging from the albums released by American Idol winners and runners-up so far, the voters got it right: Kelly Clarkson's debut CD outclassed Justin Guarini's, and Ruben Studdard's first disc beats Clay Aiken's. Although Studdard didn't write a lick of these 14 songs, the album does a good job of translating to record the cuddly Velvet Teddy Bear charm that won over Idol fans, resulting in a likable if unspectacular set. The secret to Studdard's success is a focused R&B approach that makes the album live up to its title; he brings to mind a latter-day Luther Vandross on sensitive slow jams like "What If" and hip-hoppish midtempo numbers such as "Take the Shot." Studdard also includes his own version of Vandross's signature song "Superstar," one of three tunes here that, as loyal Idol viewers will recall, he performed on his way to winning the TV talent show. (The others are his exquisite cover of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" and his inspirational finale "Flying Without Wings.") While Studdard excels on ballads like the R. Kelly-esque first single, "Sorry 2004," a heartfelt apology that is well suited to the singer's humble persona and smooth baritone, faster tracks such as "Can I Get Your Attention" (featuring rapper Pretty Tony) won't exactly make you shout "Roo-ben!" Even so, Studdard's unassuming appeal helps salvage songs like "No Ruben," which recounts his rise "from wearing my big brother's clothes to buying him a new wardrobe," and "What Is Sexy," a "big boys' anthem" featuring a guest rap by Fat Joe and a shuffling beat borrowed from Mary J. Blige's 1992 hit "Real Love."

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