Well, by titling his sophomore set -- sophomore, that is, if you don't count his ill-advised 2004 sojourn into gospel, which this American Idol winner clearly would like everyone to forget -- The Return, Ruben Studdard doesn't shy away from the perception that his career hasn't quite lived up to the expectations his 2003 American Idol win set up for him. Not that his 2003 debut, Soulful, was a flop, exactly: it hit number one and its first single, the perplexing "Sorry 2004," reached the Top Ten, but none of the other singles came close to the Top Ten -- in fact, there was only one other single, "What If," which didn't manage to crack the R&B Top 40 just a few months after the album's release. All this almost-success had the cumulative effect of making Studdard seem a bit like an also-ran and he was certainly eclipsed in stardom not only by 2003 AmIdol runner-up Clay Aiken, but 2004 winner Fantasia Barrino, a soul singer who actually was well suited for modern R&B, which Ruben was not. As his easy performances showed on the show, Studdard was best suited for '60s and '70s soul -- which, of course, had very little commercial potential in the 2000s. So, despite his success on the show, Studdard turned out to be a hard one to peg as a recording artist: he was too old-fashioned for contemporary R&B, yet his lazy, self-satisfied performances lacked the discipline for old-fashioned soul. So, it was hard to say where he should go, but in truth there was only road for him to follow: to try to be a modern spin on a classic soul loverman -- which of course meant being a new version of Luther Vandross, the quiet storm singer Studdard openly idolized and was often compared to on American Idol.
There was a certain grain of truth to those comparisons -- like Luther, Ruben favored slow grooves, and he patterned his phrasing after Vandross, but there is a crucial difference between the two: Vandross effortlessly exuded sensuality and Studdard is devoid of it. And considering that the main -- nay, only -- thrust of The Return is that Ruben Studdard is a master seducer, this presents a considerable problem. After all, his famous nickname, "the Velvet Teddy Bear," bears no sexual connotations whatsoever: it respectively refers to the silken tones of his voice and his considerable girth. Plus, it sounds cuddly, not sexy (when has a teddy bear ever been sexy?), but that's not how Studdard and his collaborators see it. No, they see Ruben as a seducer supreme, a loverman who has an utterly irresistible sexual charisma. This is a miscalculation. Not only has sex never been part of Studdard's persona -- his size and smile give him the aura of a friend, not a lover -- he cannot convey sexiness no matter how hard he tries, and he tries very, very hard to sound sexy here, which only makes his voice, never the most robust instrument, seem thinner than ever on record. Since his thin, strained voice is paired with mechanical approximations of classic Luther and Marvin grooves, given a hint of modern-day R. Kelly flavor, there's not much warmth to the sound of the music either. And The Return is truly an album where sound is paramount: there are a few well-written tunes, such as "Change Me," the one slow jam that Ruben comes close to selling convincingly, but for the most part, the album is one long, monotonous groove -- which could have made for good mood music if it was delivered by somebody who had the soul of a loverman, which Ruben simply does not. Ruben sounds self-satisfied, barely interested in the songs he's singing, so why would he be interested in the woman he's trying to bed? There's no sensuality, no warmth to his singing. Like before, Ruben exerts the minimum amount of energy on his performances; what once sounded like an effortless charm merely sounds lazy, particularly since he has few melodies to guide him. Without melodic hooks, he sounds like he's merely vocalizing, and since he doesn't have the energy or imagination to do soulful runs, he winds up merely sounding dull -- and when combined with the dull productions, the results are deadly boring.