His nickname may make you think cuddly cuteness, but Ruben is ready to put the "stud" in Studdard. The Velvet Teddy Bear busts loose on his second R&B album, The Return (due October 17), a 15-track mackin' manifesto on which the shy, soft-spoken "American Idol" champ displays his game, croons about love gone wrong and adds some club bounce to his laid-back sound.
"This album is all me," said Studdard, who followed up his platinum-selling 2003 debut, Soulful, with a hit 2004 gospel album, I Need an Angel. "The first album was more of a souvenir project for fans of 'American Idol.' On this one, people will get a lot more of who Ruben is. I really want people to know that we're real artists.
"This is my coming out. It will give people an opportunity to see who I am."
And, judging by songs like the LP's likely second single, the 1980s falsetto funk of the Scott Storch-produced "What Tha Business Is," he's the kind of dude who spots a girl across the bar, compliments her "thick thighs," offers to share a shot of XO and tells her, "You might not know me/ but I wanna show you/ I can give you what you need."
This ain't your little sister's teddy bear.
The album's first single, a slow dance ballad called "Change Me," bridges the gap between the classic soul of the Isley Brothers and the tick-tock, smooth-talk R&B perfected by Studdard's hero, R. Kelly. It's an example of the maturity Studdard said he wanted to show off this time out. "I was in the studio in L.A. working with the [song's producers] Underdogs and I [realized] I was apologizing for things we do as men," he explained. "But there's so many different aspects of relationships, so I told them, 'What if we talk about how it is when guys feel like the girl is always trying to change what they do?' And it came out hot."
The sessions for the album, which was recorded over several months in studios from Los Angeles to Miami to New York, yielded 70 songs, nearly half of which were written or co-written by Studdard. Only three — "To Tha Crib," Blow Ya Mind" and "I'm Not Happy" — made the final cut, but Studdard said he has enough songs for at least two more albums, one of which he'd like to drop as early as next spring.
"I live in the studio and I live to make music and I just really wanted to be a part of the whole process this time," said Studdard of his hand in writing songs, as well as his co-production on a faithful remake of Brenda Russell's classic soul tune "If Only For One Night," recorded as an homage to Studdard's hero, late singer Luther Vandross, who also covered the tune.
The album also features two songs written by hot R&B star Ne-Yo ("Make Ya Feel Beautiful" and "Rather Just Not Know"), which Studdard said the pair banged out at a furious pace. "I'm a fan of his work I was in love with song he [co-]wrote for Mario ['Let Me Love You'] and I asked my A&R guys to hook up a session — and we ended up with two smashes." Aside from their bond as young R&B hitmakers, Studdard revealed an even deeper connection that most people don't know about.
If you do a search on the Web, you can find a nearly decade-old clip of an "It's Showtime at the Apollo" performance by a Boyz II Men-style vocal group from Las Vegas that features a flame-haired Ne-Yo and none other than disgraced ex-"Idol" contestant Corey Clark. "I remember seeing them on that show!" said Studdard with a rumbling laugh.
Kind of like fellow "Idol" alum Kelly Clarkson, Studdard feels that his second album is a coming-out party for his personal style and an opportunity to show people that he's much more than a TV talent-show winner. But he's careful not to dismiss his "Idol" past.
"My motivation is not to break away from 'American Idol,' " he said. "We wouldn't be having this conversation if not for that show. My objective to show people who I am through my music."