In the 10 years since he brightened the world of pop music with his American Idol-winning romantic balladry, Ruben Studdard has warmed the hearts of his huge fan base with five albums and touring with the varied likes of Peabo Bryson, Melissa Manchester, CeCe Winans and David Foster.

But with his new album Unconditional Love, which was helmed by Foster in his role as chairman of Studdard’s new label Verve Records, he has delivered the recording that he himself states is “the record I should have made after I won American Idol.”

“It’s my most romantic album yet—and most mature,” says Studdard. “It shows my growth as a vocalist, and is also the most heartfelt album I’ve ever recorded and includes many of my favorite songs from all different eras.”

Whereas Studdard may well have had to conform to certain expectations immediately following his American Idol win (with 24 million votes!), Foster notes that on Unconditional Love, “he’s pouring it out in every note he sings.”

“A lot of singers can deliver, but Ruben is very exposed–and you’ve got to be able to sing your ass off to do this kind of an album,” continues Foster, “and he did that.”

Besides a voice that has earned Studdard the nickname “the Velvet Teddy Bear” (from Gladys Knight, no less), Unconditional Love is marked by a song selection, chosen jointly by Studdard, Foster and Foster’s sister and fellow producer Jaymes Foster, to play to Studdard’s strengths as a romantic balladeer.

“I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with the core audience that’s stuck with me from the beginning,” he concludes, adding, “It’s been a wonderful journey so far.”

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