Ruben Studdard

Unconditional Love

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After the Shanachie release Letters from Birmingham managed to peak at only number 15 on Billboard's R&B Albums chart, Ruben Studdard's career could have been viewed as in decline. All four of the singer's previous albums had reached the Top Ten, and his recording budget, along with his exposure, was shrinking. However, he was swept up by Verve due to new label chairman David Foster, a longtime Studdard supporter. Adult contemporary giant Foster played a major role in the making of Unconditional Love, one most likely greater than the productions, arrangements, and keyboards for which he is credited here. (Who else would have thought to dig up his and Boz Scaggs' largely forgotten if successful collaboration from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack?) This is a pleasingly straightforward set, dominated by covers, that plays to Studdard's strength as a mature, romantic balladeer. Some of the song selections -- "I Can't Make You Love Me" and "(They Long to Be) Close to You," for instance -- are a tad obvious and plain, but there are several subtle surprises. Paul and Linda McCartney's "My Love" could have been done faithfully, but it sounds like a glistening and snappy dead ringer for something off an early-'80s Luther Vandross album. On Marvin Gaye's "If This World Were Mine," Studdard and Grammy winner Lalah Hathaway are more like Vandross and Cheryl Lynn than Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and the two sound just as natural with one another. There's another nod to the Hathaway family with a cover of "Love, Love, Love," the J.R. Bailey/Ken Williams composition popularized by Lalah's father Donny. This version has more of a lilt to it, and at no point does Studdard sound like he's bearing the weight of living up to a genius. An enjoyable, comfortable release from the singer, Unconditional Love is quite possibly his best work yet.

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