Two years ago, the biggest question surrounding Jennifer Hudson's career was whether she could act.
Everyone knew she could sing; after all, it was her soaring, gospel-inflected voice that made her famous during her finalist run on "American Idol" in 2004. The question was whether her considerable talent extended to acting when she was cast in the drama-filled role of Effie in the movie adaptation of the musical "Dreamgirls."
An Oscar win for best supporting actress answered that handily, and roles in the summer blockbuster "Sex and the City" and the upcoming "The Secret Lives of Bees" have only reaffirmed her newfound gift. But as Hudson puts the focus back on her singing with her self-titled debut CD, she has to answer more questions — like whether winning an Academy Award last year has made it easier or harder for her to be seen as a singer
"Harder!" she declares with a laugh.
"The pressure is more on the music than on the film side, which is odd," Hudson muses. "It's like everything is expected to be big coming from me and so it's like, 'OK, we know this is going to be huge too.' So it's magnified, and a lot of attention on it and from what I hear it's extremely anticipated — so it's like, (sighs) 'OK!'"
But Hudson is hardly harried about the release of "Jennifer Hudson," out this week. She's used to defying expectations.
"I don't believe in limits so I wasn't allowing myself to be limited and I wanted to show other sides of me, and to say 'Well, if you like this side of Jennifer, let me introduce you to another side,'" says Hudson. "I used to consider my voice a tree with many branches and that's what to me this album displays, all these different sides of me."
Those sides were obscured during acting ascent: While she had spent most of her adult life singing, once her acting career took off, she shelved her dream of making an album while making movies.
"If I'm acting I'm acting, if I'm singing I'm singing," says the Chicago native. "There's no doing both, because I don't wanna split my focus ... so one had to give way for the other."
Free to sing anything
Once she finally found time to revisit her music career, Hudson had to figure out how she wanted to reintroduce herself as a musician. While Hudson counts Whitney Houston among her chief influences, she was careful not to make a CD full of torch songs to showcase her powerful voice: "I didn't want to be typecast as just a big ballad singer."
While "Jennifer Hudson" does contain soaring ballads and even her devastating rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" from "Dreamgirls," it also features a rap verse from Ludacris, a collaboration with T-Pain, production help from Ne-Yo and Timbaland and even a duet with fellow "American Idol" alum Fantasia.
"With her, she has such an amazing voice, you can pretty much pick any song, and she can sing it," said Harvey Mason Jr., one of the songwriters and producers on the CD who also worked with Hudson on the "Dreamgirls" soundtrack. "It really gave us a freedom to be really creative."
Still, Hudson doesn't necessarily have a voice or sound that neatly fits on radio playlists. She doesn't fit the gritty soul diva role like a Mary J. Blige or Keyshia Cole, or the glamour queen part like Beyonce, or the lithe singer type of a Rihanna or a Ciara.
"I'm not sure how it's going to happen, I don't know how radio is going to receive her, how people are going to receive her," he says. But he adds: "It might be a great breath of fresh air. It's going to be to her benefit that she doesn't sound like the typical singer who's a dancer."
So far, the first single from the CD, the midtempo "Spotlight," has been a solid hit for Hudson, peaking at No. 3 on Billboard's Hot 100 R&B/Hip Hop Chart. But it was a slow rise, and it hasn't had much crossover traction.
With no movie projects firmly in place, Hudson says music will be her main focus once again, with plans for a tour in the nearby future. But it won't be her sole focus — she recently became engaged to David Otunga, the reality star better known as "Punk" for his stint on the VH1 show "I Love New York."
While Hudson was sporting her gigantic engagement hardware, it's so new she's still getting used to her future as a married woman, quickly correcting herself though giggles as she changes from "I" to "we" when talking about her upcoming nuptials.
"We don't have a date yet, but I guess that's part of my future plans!"