Monday, June 23, 2014

album review: 'a.k.a.' by jennifer lopez

It kind of amazes me that it's been over fifteen years since Jennifer Lopez released her first album. It definitely amazes me that this is her eighth studio album over the course of the past fifteen years, and that people are actually requested that I cover this album in some way.

It amazes me because I, for the life of me, do not understand the continued appeal of Jennifer Lopez outside of the Hispanic demographic, or even inside it. J.Lo began her career in TV and movies before jumping into the oversaturated pop diva scene of the late 90s, and for a few years she was very successful. However, looking back on that material, I can say that it's not exactly good. She never had the pipes of a Christina Aguilera or the creative songwriting of Shakira, instead riding the Latin trend of the time before transitioning into R&B and giving The LOX a legitimate charting hit. It didn't help matters that songs like 'I'm Real' and 'Jenny From The Block' tried to coast by on assertion of 'realness' and down-to-earth authenticity that plainly didn't reflect her multi-millionaire lifestyle and tabloid fixture romances. Eventually, hip-hop got dirtier and Jennifer Lopez's material got milder, which lead to her mid-period albums not catching on and her to star in a succession of terribly forgettable romantic comedies after the hilarious catastrophe that was Gigli.

And yet in 2011, thanks to the rise of Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez's music career suddenly got a second wind and began to ride a second smaller Latin wave that saw Enrique Iglesias and even Marc Anthony briefly return to the charts. And look, the hits that J.Lo charted in this wave of dance pop weren't bad, but at the same time, we weren't exactly short on pop divas making club songs, and with Rihanna, Ke$ha, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Pink, Britney Spears, and even Christina Aguilera, what unique elements did Jennifer Lopez bring to the table?

And thus, I was planning on skipping this Jennifer Lopez album. I mean, while Pitbull's career has somehow held steam despite his consistently awful lyrics, the club boom is over, and somehow I didn't get the feeling J.Lo was going to be hopping on the EDM trend, so I had no idea what to expect, especially consider twenty-six different producers worked on this record. So, what did we get?

Well, we got pretty much the only thing we could have expected from Jennifer Lopez at this point - a profoundly confused mess of an album that attempts to slam modern trends in pop and hip-hop together with a half-hearted stab at cohesion or an interesting sound. And that could make for an interesting album... if the modern trends that this album borrowed had the slightest hint of a pulse. In other words, especially by J.Lo standards, A.K.A. is an utterly forgettable record that with its dismal sales and mixed at best reactions from critics will likely be considered a footnote to pop music this year - if that.

So what went wrong here? Well, the best place to start would be the production and instrumentation, of which the best word to describe it would be 'half-finished'. It's a little startling considering how many producers were involved with the making of this record that it feels so unfocused and sloppy, seldom if ever building to a satisfying climax or even a decent dance beat. I might not have liked Lopez's last album, but at least 'Dance Again' and 'On The Floor' had some propulsive energy. Here, the synths are watery, shrill, and sound imported from cheap keyboard presets, the percussion is leaden or so heavily trap-inspired to lose all unique flavour, and the production is so cavernous that it frequently feels like she gets lost in her song! That's not saying there aren't moments I didn't mind: the guitar lead on 'Never Satisfied' wasn't bad, and the balance of strings and guitar on 'Let It Be Me' easily knock it up to the best song of the album, but the majority of this production falls into the same trap as most modern pop music in emphasizing percussion and beats over melody, which makes a lot of this album incredibly forgettable. 

Granted, the lyrics don't help matters. It's a sad sign when one of the better guest verses off of this album is from Rick Ross on 'Worry No More' - and honestly, his verse isn't bad because he does lend this album a bit of class and opulence that does fit the production. Outside of that, the only other guest verse that isn't a complete waste of time is from Iggy Azalea on 'Acting Like That', but even it lacks flavour. But at least it feels cohesive and competently structured in comparison to the other guest verses - T.I.'s verse on the title track features some of the laziest rapping he's ever put on record, 'Booty' shows Pitbull embarrassing himself on a song that's already focused on J.Lo's ass, and French Montana proves on 'I Luh Ya Papi' that his brief moment of being tolerable on Miley Cyrus' 'F.U.' was mostly because he was marginalized as much as possible. But even beyond that, the lyrics on this record are painfully generic and forgettable at best, if not stepping into the flat-out stupid. I already mentioned 'I Luh Ya Papi', but dear god, there's nothing sexy about Lopez repeating that phrase until your brain hemorrhages. 'Booty' is slightly more tolerable because it at least tries to have a propulsive beat albeit with an irritating-as-all-hell melody, but then again, it's J.Lo singing a song about her ass! But even the ballads on this record aren't impressive either: take 'Emotions', which features the oh-so-poetic lyrics 'I feel good cause I don't feel bad' and 'Broke your heart / so you could feel it' and other slams against this ex who really didn't appear to do much bad outside of not give J.Lo as much time as she wanted - so, why are we supposed to sympathize with J.Lo in this song again? The poetry here is poor even by pop standards, and it becomes hard to take seriously when J.Lo is trying her best to sell it?

And this takes us to Jennifer Lopez herself - and let me start by saying that I get J.Lo's appeal, because honestly, she's got a lot of charisma and personality when she wants to let it shine through. That's why I've always thought she was a good actress, even if she got stuck with terrible screenplays, and on the right dance tracks, she can bring a lot of vivacious energy - and yet this album seems to do everything in its power to render her completely anonymous. Between the autotune and the abuse of reverb, J.Lo sounds swallowed by her production, and there are very few points where it requires her to sound invested or belt. And that takes us to the biggest issue to this album: what does J.Lo bring to this music that any other pop diva I've covered this year doesn't? In the past six months I've covered Lea Michele, Kylie Minogue, Shakira, Christina Perri, Lily Allen, Foxes, and Cher Lloyd - so what exactly is J.Lo bringing to this table that sets her apart?

In the end, this album is only memorable when it sinks to becoming inane and stupid, and it reeks of having too many producers behind the soundboard to deliver anything with flavour. And what's worst about that is that even on the lowest common denominator of dance music, there are no potent or creative grooves or melodies that stuck with me whatsoever. Thankfully, it's less aggressively terrible than some albums, which knocks this record to a 4/10, but it's not something I can recommend, even to Jennifer Lopez fans. She's capable of better music than this, and she shouldn't be reduced to singing songs about her ass with Pitbull in order to get a hit. Skip this.

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