Poor Ruben Studdard: First in our hearts but second on our charts. Studdard fended off Clay Aiken for the title of this year's American Idol champion in a voting process so tight it recalled the last presidential election, had Gore vs. Bush been hosted by Ryan Seacrest and periodically interrupted by plugs for Ford cars and Coca-Cola. As a kind of rematch, Aiken's and Studdard's albums were originally scheduled for release on the same day, but that showdown never happened, and Studdard now finds himself playing catch-up with Aiken's best-selling Measure Of A Man. Objectively speaking, it's his fight to lose: Studdard has the better voice, but more importantly, he doesn't have Aiken's creepy neediness. Watching Aiken onstage, it's easy to imagine him turning backflips if he thought it would win him some fans. But while that eagerness to please isn't always evident in Studdard's performances, it's a major factor in his debut's song selection. Adopting a leave-no-fan-behind attitude, he includes something for everyone on Soulful. Naturally, show favorites "Superstar," "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," and the awful "Flying Without Wings" return, and those ballads are balanced by the uptempo just-Ruben-from-the-block R&B of "No Ruben," a couple of uninspired Swizz Beatz tracks, and a token stab at hip-hop in the form of "What Is Sexy," featuring guest star Fat Joe. The awkward-though-inevitable pairing celebrates "big boys" and "big sisters" who are apparently "in style again," and coyly alludes to Fat Joe's refusal to perform cunnilingus. (That should finally end the flood of requests for oral sex that have long plagued Fat Joe.) As an album, Soulful doesn't really work: Only the ballads stand out, and the chestnuts come across much better than the new tracks. With the right handling, Studdard possesses the talent and charisma to become a star, but if he continues in this direction, even the most obviously talented contestant to walk the Idol stage seems fated to be forever a glorified karaoke champ.

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