Since her star-making turn as Effie in 2006’s Dreamgirls, which took her from American Idol also-ran to Academy Award winner, Jennifer Hudson has left no doubt that she could crush a big ballad. Now on her third album, JHUD (Sept. 23, RCA), the singer-actress flips the script, hitting the dance floor with beats by Pharrell (who produced three tracks) and assists from R. Kelly, Iggy Azalea and T.I. As she gets her new groove on, the Chicago native, 33, dishes on her dream role, going gospel and being sick of singing that song.
You worked with Pharrell on JHUD. How did he connect with you as a producer?
I worked with Pharrell for my first album [2008’s Jennifer Hudson], although we didn’t end up having anything make that album, but we already had a rapport from back then. I was so excited to work with him again. Where we connect is we both have a love of old-school music. He’ll come in with a track and then I’m like, “I already know where I’m going with this. I feel you.”
Now that your music is more dance-driven, are you working on your moves?
I got one or two! I’m still working on it. It’s been fun. The only times I’ve really ever danced [with choreography] were when I worked on a cruise ship and then when I did Dreamgirls. And I didn’t miss a step!
JHud is a nickname that people have been using for you for a while. Did you always like it?
From the beginning. The first time I heard of it was when I was on American Idol, and apparently a radio DJ in Chicago gave me this nickname. Ever since everybody’s been calling me JHud. No one calls me Jennifer Hudson anymore. I grew up being called Jenny Kate, so this is like the world’s version of Jenny Kate.
JHud also takes a page from J.Lo. Do you have a favorite J.Lo song?
Oh my god, yes! “Jenny from the Block.”
Would you ever consider being an American Idol judge like Jennifer Lopez?
No, there can only be one Jenny on the block. [Laughs.]
Your signature song is of course “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Do you ever get sick of singing it?
You hit the nail on the head! But I’m grateful for it. I would never have guessed that I would still be walking around singing this one song. I will go through a whole 50-minute set and ain’t nobody paying me no attention, but as soon as I sing “And I Am Telling You,” it’s like, “Really, that’s all y’all want?” I will be singing “And I Am Telling You” for the rest of my days.
You have one of the best voices in the game right now. Who are some of your favorite singers, past and present?
Obviously I love the Aretha Franklins and the Whitney Houstons. I like voices with depth and range, like this [gospel] artist named Jessica Reedy. I also love Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande. And one of my favorite artists of today is Mali Music. He actually sang for my birthday [on Sept. 12].
Now that your son David is 5 and can appreciate your music more, what does he think about it?
Well, he told me I’m his second-favorite singer. Michael Jackson is first — and then mommy. He’s always around the house making little videos of himself doing Michael Jackson moves. I was telling him recently that, “You know, you were in my tummy when I sang at his memorial.” And he was like, “Really? Wow!”
There was some talk that you might play Aretha Franklin in a movie. Is that still a possibility?
Well, apparently they’re still figuring that out, but that is my dream role. I would love it. I feel the same way I felt about Dreamgirls. I’m ready, honey!
After JHUD, what other kinds of music projects do you see in your future?
I want my next album to be a live album, like an old Aretha performance where she sat at the piano and played. I love moments like that. Then eventually I want to do opera because I sing opera as well. But my ultimate goal is to do the ultimate gospel album.
An edited version of this story orginally appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of Billboard.