Fantasia and Ruben Studdard

Free Yourself (J Records) I Need an Angel (J Records)

Through no fault of my own, I've seen nearly every episode of American Idol over the past couple of years, and while I rooted most fervently for a case of highly contagious laryngitis, I considered Fantasia Barrino and Ruben Studdard to be the next-best alternatives in their respective seasons, for obvious reasons. Fantasia was up against the likes of Jasmine Trias, the producer of more flat notes per song than anyone this side of Roseanne Barr. Studdard, for his part, faced off with Clay Aiken, an oversized elf who makes Barry Manilow seem soulful by comparison. My tolerance for "Copacabana" has risen accordingly.

Thanks to high-profile contributors such as Jermaine Dupri and Rodney Jerkins, Free Yourself is bearable, too, but the disc as a whole reveals Fantasia's limitations. Sans visuals, her belting toward the end of songs like "Baby Mama" is thin and ragged -- a hissy fit masquerading as passion. The grab bag of styles doesn't help matters, either: "Selfish (I Want U 2 Myself)," a strong contemporary track co-starring Missy Elliott, abuts George Gerswhin's "Summertime," an Idol showstopper that literally brings the CD to a screeching halt.

At least it's livelier than I Need an Angel, a faith-based effort that's unwaveringly smooth. Rather than allow the spirit to take him, as the best gospel practitioners do, Studdard croons the likes of "I Surrender All" with a relaxed steadiness that's pleasant but seldom as inspiring as it should be. It's hard to know why he was recently hospitalized for exhaustion, because on most ditties, he certainly doesn't tire himself out.

Thanks in all likelihood to their inveterate averageness, neither Free nor Angel are in any danger of topping the sales charts. We may finally have reached the point of Idol overload -- at least until the next season starts. Go, laryngitis, go!

 
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