Jennifer Lopez is an icon. We knew that long before she won the Icon Award last month. But musically, Lopez sounds trapped in a different era.
Her eighth studio album, “A.K.A.,” starts on this week’s Billboard 200 albums chart with 33,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan — good for a No. 8 debut, but not good for an artist who relentlessly promoted her first new project in three years. “A.K.A.” includes guest spots from Rick Ross, T.I. and Iggy Azalea, on songs that sound derivative of Lopez hits from last decade (“Worry No More,” for instance, sounds like the “Ain’t It Funny” remix, but with Auto-tune). “First Love,” the glitzy single co-produced by Max Martin, starts out as a promising pop confessional focused on Lopez’s misfortune in romance, but the combustible hook it wants to flaunt is not present.
In many ways, the Lopez empire is booming, with film projects, wireless stores, an autobiography, fragrances and fashion endeavors offsetting a shrug-worthy album launch. “I Luh Ya Papi,” the lead single from “A.K.A.,” came nowhere near the Top 10 of the Hot 100… but with Kohl’s, Nuvo TV,Viva Movil and ABC Family’s “The Fosters” all keeping Lopez busy, it’s hard to imagine that chart stat really stinging. In her recent cover story for Billboard, Lopez was asked about her place in the pop stratosphere, and said, “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore.” Even if “A.K.A.” sounds like an unnecessary power play for commercial relevance, maybe she didn’t flinch when those first-week sales came out.
But Lopez, an artist with a bulletproof greatest-hits compilation, does not necessarily have to put music on the back burner — she just has to evolve her sound. Surprisingly, Lopez’s voice sounds markedly more powerful on “A.K.A.” than it has on recent albums: “Emotions,” a ballad co-written by Chris Brown, oscillates between full-throated crooning and sassy name-taking, while “Let It Be Me” finds Lopez quivering, “But when they ask/Who was the one? Who did you love? Let it be me,” with impressive restraint. Throughout her career, Lopez’s greatest strengths have been dancing and churning out dance music. However, the ballads on “A.K.A.” hint at a sweeping musical direction that Lopez has typically relegated to the back of her albums, as a supplement to her uptempo spectacles. Perhaps it’s time to move it front and center.
Why not aim for a more thoughtful sound with producers like The-Dream & Tricky Stewart, James Fauntleroy and Harmony Samuels (the latter of whom co-produced “Let It Be Me”)? Write a heartbreak album riddled with self-empowerment anthems, and embrace the artistic progression already made by artists like Cher, Mary J. Blige and Tina Turner. Lopez is a very different singer than Mariah Carey, but her blueprint should be something like 2005’s “The Emancipation of Mimi” — an album anchored by sleek, breathy ballads like “We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off,” and a pivotal moment for Carey’s commercial comeback. Carey currently has her own issues with relevancy, but “The Emancipation of Mimi” was one of the more impressive pop returns of the 2000s, and effectively wiped away the doubts caused by her “Glitter”/”Charmbracelet” phase.
Carey is also among several pop divas to prove that ballads can rule the airwaves when properly executed — “#Beautiful” was a Top 20 hit a year ago, after all — and a whole lot of people are still singing along to John Legend’s “All Of Me” this summer. A song like “Let It Be Me” on “A.K.A.” proves that, if Lopez finds the right production partners, she can serve up slower material that can measure up to the best balladeers’ work. And if a vocals-driven project doesn’t sell, Lopez still has that multi-media empire to fall back on. More likely, she’ll will praise for showing off her voice in a more demonstrative way, and for taking the risk of rearranging her style.
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From a commercial standpoint, something’s got to give for Lopez. The lackluster start for “A.K.A.” is actually the latest in a string of deflated beginnings: Lopez’s 2011 LP “Love?” debuted with 83,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, despite including the Top 5 smash “On The Floor” and arriving when the singer was more visible than ever, thanks to her first “American Idol” stint. The album before that, 2008’s “Brave,” did not include a smash hit, and debuted with 53,000 copies sold. Lopez may simply be a veteran pop star with declining album sales — there are a lot of those around, and no one needs to mock them. But a personality like Lopez also has enough cultural capital to survive a string of misfires and come back with her profile intact. “I Luh Ya Papi” was another fun, weightless radio offering from Lopez, and it didn’t work at Top 40. If Lopez really wants to reclaim pop fans’ attention, it might be time to turn down the French Montana collaborations and enter what Beyonce might call her ‘Grown Woman Phase.’
The 33,000-copy sales debut of “A.K.A.” represents a crossroads moment for a superstar who’s about to turn 45. Lopez is right when she says that she doesn’t have anything more to prove, but her sound needs to develop alongside the rest of her professional life. J.Lo needs to own that far-reaching brand, acknowledge that her fans have grown up too, and give them the adult album they want to hear.