The last time we were media blitzed by Jennifer Hudson, she was winning awards for her movie and album debuts. Hudson stepped away from the spotlight when her mother and brother were murdered, but she’s been quitely coming back — first as a Weight Watchers spokesperson, and now for her sophomore album, I Remember Me.

Considering her recent past, Hudson could easily have made a maudlin album. Instead, she’s delivered a mature set of R&B grooves showing the emergence of a woman. With some help from Alicia Keys, R. Kelly and Ne-Yo, the album stays fresh (while sometimes bordering on passé) with Clive Davis helming the production and Diane Warren injecting sappy ballads.

Despite the soft opening of “No One Gonna Love You,” the album gets going with “I Got This.” This could have been a self-help anthem, but she keeps it cool without showing off her strong voice.

She turns the emotion on in “Where You At.” There is a patience here that’s unexpected, but she can pack a punch. Lyrics like Thought you were my hero / But as it turns out, you a no-show are kinda sassy, but her disappointment reaches beyond the speakers and man; you just feel bad for her.

Davis’ oversight sometimes makes the album a little obvious and the impact is referential rather than modern. What saves it is Hudson believing in these songs. Her most personal song, “I Remember Me” (which she co-wrote), is part ballad, part declaration. With a heavy bass spine, it’s still a delicate bird of a song and knowing her tragic story, she shows her survival mode and even celebrates herself without being narcissistic.

For a relatively newbie artist, Hudson can vocally walk a tightrope with subtle emotion. She holds back when you think she’ll explode with a vocal run, and then she’ll throw one into the fire once you’ve settled back into her quiet groove. It’s a nice trick.

The album does suffer with some clichés. Keys pens three boring songs (you wonder if these are her throwaways because they never resonate). That said, “Don’t Look Down” has a glorious ’80s adult R&B vibe a la Patti Austin or Jeffrey Osborne.

The excitement trails off in the second half and lumbers a bit. The one punctuation that keeps it afloat is “Feeling Good,” made famous by Nina Simone. This gives a punch of energy much needed by this point. Everything is right about this version from the lush horn riff to Hudson’s respectful homage but leaving a very personal stamp on it.

I Remember Me is an exciting step forward for Hudson. Here, she seems to be recognizing the fairy tale that is her life and embracing its reality. She picks up where Whitney and Toni have left off and contemporary music has been missing that kind of vocalist. Despite some missteps, it’s nice to see her return and do so with substance.

— Rich Lopez

Three-and-a-half stars.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 25, 2011.