Sometimes, it is hard to believe that America crowned Kelly Clarkson the first winner of the reality-singing television American Idol series twenty years ago. While Clarkson has gone to eclipse her celebrity in different facets of entertainment with Grammy wins, a stint as a judge on the rival singing show The Voice, and even a talk show, the man who came up second to Clarkson rarely receives mention.
That is right, folks, I am speaking of none other than Justin Guarini, whose self-titled debut arrived in stories on June 10th, 2003. While Guarini was never necessarily a front on the show, he was a constant presence when he covered artists such as Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Nat King Cole, and Al Green.
Similar to Clarkson, the label did not rush an album out after the first season’s completion. Moreover, if memory serves, I do not even recall a music video or lead single receiving any airplay. Guarini opens up the album with “One Heart Too Many,” which opens with a bit of Spanish guitar flavor. The production compliments Guarini’s voice nicely, allowing his tenor to appear natural and unforced.
“I Saw Your Face” follows, and honestly, this should have been the first single. While the message is a routine one of seeing an attractive woman for the first time, if anything, the song solidifies that Guarini had the vocal Prowse for the R&B market. R&B heavyweights The Underdogs, Antonino Dixon, and the legend himself Babyface provided Guarini with the lyrics and handled production on this BOP. In addition, the same team provided Guarini with another winner in “How Will You Know.”
The R&B vibes continue on the following two songs, “Be a Heartbreaker” and “Sorry.” The latter features a great arrangement from Soulshock & Karlin. Ironically, if another singer such as Usher or the other Justin had these songs, I am sure they would have easily been hits. While Justin does have a vital lane in R&B, the Brian McKnight penned “Condition of My Heart” misses the mark for me, as it sounds like an outtake from one of McKnight’s albums. Similarly, Justin Timberlake’s written “Thinking Of You” plays it too safe for my tastes.
Guarini also has his share of filler of material on the project with “If You Wanna,” which is for the pop crowd, and the Kelly Clarkson duet “Timeless.” Thankfully, when it comes to the original material, the good outweighs the bad. Hearing the album at age forty, the sentiment of American Idol not knowing what to do with male R&B singers is evident.
Naturally, there are notable covers on the project. They include The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Texas’s “Inner Child.” and Brenda Russell’s “Get Here.” On the one hand, perhaps if Guarini did an album of all covers, he would have found more success.
Sadly, Guarini’s album did not even go gold, and the label quickly dropped him. Nevertheless, as they say, when one door closes, another opens up. Guarini would later succeed in theater as a public speaker and most notably as Lil’Sweet, the Dr. Pepper mascot.
Nevertheless, Guarini’s self-titled debut was a solid first entry in the catalog of American Idol singers who place second and is worth visiting.
Final Grade: B
Top Tracks: “I Saw Your Face,” “Be A Heartbreaker”, “How Will You Know”
Justin Guarini is available on all streaming platforms
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