This month’s Olympus Fashion Week came to a dramatic conclusion with Jennifer Lopez’s “Sweetface,” the show everyone wanted to get into, including me. While Slant’s resident fashionista, Alexa Camp, managed to score a seat on top of a giant speaker, I was left to watch the event via online streaming video. Aside from the obvious spectacle, part of the show’s charm was its cute self-referential structure, which loosely mirrored each phase of Lopez’s singing career: opening with a West Side Story logo that read “The J. Lo Story” (tiered fire escape and all), the casual wear and ’80s soundtrack of the show’s first third was meant to represent Lopez’s pre-fame days (you know, back when she was still riding the 6 train); the second, hip-hop-heavy portion of the show was inspired by her ghetto-fab P. Diddy days (back when “J. Lo,” her alter-ego, was christened); while the last section reflected Movie Star Lopez or Red Carpet Glamour Lopez…or something like that. The problem was that the whole line was retrograde—as Alexa said, there was nothing fashion-forward about it, no indication of where Jennifer Lopez is now or where she’s going (for those who care).
Like the show, each of Lopez’s albums has been pointedly and symbolically titled, from On The 6 to J. Lo to This Is Me…Then, and her latest, Rebirth, is no exception. Following inevitable overexposure at the hands of a vicarious-living public and greed-driven media, Lopez undoubtedly felt the need to reinvent herself. Bennifer dealt an obvious blow to Ben Affleck’s career, but it remains unclear whether his more famous ex has suffered any irreparable damage—she’s already become such an icon that it’s virtually impossible to separate her film characters from her celebrity persona, which is a shame considering she’s a far better actress than singer (don’t believe me? check out Oliver Stone’s U Turn). Music, on the other hand, is a much more generous medium. One great song and you’re forgiven—even if the crime was simply living your life in the public eye. Trouble is, Rebirth’s lead single, “Get Right,” isn’t good, let alone great, and the album doesn’t live up to its title.
Much has been made of the fact that the sample-heavy “Get Right” was originally produced by Rich Harrison for Usher (who now wants publishing royalties!) and was probably brought to Lopez by Harrison after someone in her camp decided she needed her own “Crazy In Love.” But why anyone, even Usher, would want to take credit for this mess is beyond me. Unlike the Chi-Lites sample used on Beyoncé’s signature tune, the incessant Maceo Parker horn loop of “Get Right” is obnoxious at best and Lopez’s nasally delivery accentuates the weakest aspect of her voice: the fact that she really can’t sing. As I’ve stated before, Lopez’s voice is best suited for formats that are more forgiving—pop and dance, as opposed to R&B and hip-hop. Strike one for an album that’s supposedly meant to resurrect J. Lo the pop star.
Still, amid the stale (“Cherry Pie”) and the contrived (“Whatever You Wanna Do,” yet another horn-y Rich Harrison concoction), tracks like the Timbaland-produced “He’ll Be Back” and the slinky “Step Into My World” make good use of vocal effects, masking Lopez’s limitations with silky hooks and breathy verses, and bringing to mind Brandy’s extra-ordinary Afrodisiac. (In fact, “Ryde Or Die,” one of the album’s best tracks, is literally a carbon copy of the unreleased Brandy song “I’ll Do Anything For You.”) Rebirth is nowhere near as gut-wrenching a break-up album as Brandy’s latest, but the track “(Can’t Believe) This Is Me,” produced by Lopez’s latest husband, is a decidedly personal statement on an otherwise impersonal album—at least compared to 2002’s gushy This Is Me…Then, which was entirely inspired by Lopez’s relationship with Ben Affleck and whose title is evoked in the name of this new song. With its arrangement of piano, electric guitars, and strings, “This Is Me” is dramatic and over-the-top (in a good way), not unlike Lopez and Anthony’s Grammy performance, which was staged like a scene from Abrázame Muy Fuerte as directed by Douglas Sirk.
After excising Latin pop from her repertoire (judging by the abovementioned performance, though, Anthony seems to be inspiring its resurrection) and becoming the postergirl for the hip-hop remix, Lopez took an admirable step toward a more mature R&B sound with This Is Me…Then, but the album forsook personality (read: fun, a trait J. Lo, though uneven, happily possessed) for production values. The good news is that Rebirth is a cozy medium between those two records. The surprisingly cogent “I Got U” and “Still Around” reprise the more adult sound of Lopez’s last album, to varying degrees of success, while “Hold You Down,” featuring Fat Joe, harks back to her collaboration-heavy remix album. So, in that sense, it kind of is like a rebirth, but it’s mostly just another Jennifer Lopez record: a few good songs, some badly sung filler, great production, and a whole team of collaborators to make it all work. Ultimately, Rebirth is just another mediocre chapter in “The Story of J. Lo.”