Given the cheesy nature of ''American Idol,'' it was only a matter of time before one of its finalists sang an ode to the show. On his debut album, Soulful, second-season winner Ruben Studdard has the dubious honor of being the first. In ''No Ruben'' (which is not a song about the portly singer's no-corned-beef-allowed diet), he plugs the series, thanks those who voted for him, and warbles about how he went ''from the little hood to the whole world/And it's all good.'' Coming two tracks into ''Soulful,'' this clumsy, teeth-grating number doesn't bode well for either Studdard or his choice in material.
On the positive tip, ''No Ruben'' -- like roughly half of ''Soulful'' -- is set to a lightly palpitating blend of penthouse R&B and mild hip-hop. Intent on proving Studdard isn't just a balladeer, his top-dollar producers, including Swizz Beatz and Irv Gotti, surround his seemingly agreeable voice with guest rappers, beefy beats, and plenty of sonic gimmicks. As mass-produced as these tracks sound, they're still a welcome, comparatively low-key relief from the bombast that overtook the Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson albums.
When the soupy ballads inevitably arrive, though, the need for embellishment becomes glaringly clear: Studdard is a shockingly mediocre singer. He shares a love of melisma with his fellow ''American Idol'' contestants, but they, at least, can hit the notes. When Studdard stretches out a word to several syllables, as he does repeatedly in gauzy versions of the Bee Gees' ''How Can You Mend a Broken Heart'' and the Carpenters- and Luther Vandross-associated ''Superstar,'' he either strains or he sings flat. These vocals are so raw and unpolished, you can't help but wonder if someone at his label was out to embarrass him. Studdard may be the first showboater to make you long to hear Mariah Carey obliterate a phrase. On the other hand, the album will help non-''Idol'' worshippers understand why Clay fans were so outraged when he lost to this guy. With ''Soulful,'' we feel their pain too.