Forget Jennifer Lopez the actress, star, head-turning clotheshorse and callipygian paradigm. Sure, in her new single, "Love Don't Cost a Thing," she explains that she's not impressed with your Benz because she's got her own. Yes, the title of her new album, J.Lo, appears as diamond-studded jewelry on the cover. But in a music career that is now on its second record, Lopez's celebrity doesn't travel much further than the come-hither looks in the CD booklets.
Instead, J.Lo casts her as a Nuyorican Everyhottie, constantly torn between ravishing you and bouncing your sorry self out the door. She's ready to dance all night, "do very erotic things" in English and Spanish, and promise lifelong happiness until, inevitably, you start playing games or try to push her around. Juggling desire and distrust, club-hopping and career, independence and commitment, Latin heritage and assimilation is Everyhottie's predicament. For her, love seesaws between pleasures and power struggles.
In "I'm Real," one of seven songs on J.Lo for which Lopez shares writing credit, she offers voluptuous good times as long as you "don't ask me where I've been." While she brags that she's made you fall in love, an admiring male voice chants, "She's a bad, bad bitch." Getting through the post-feminist hip-hop contradictions here is more of a brain twister than finding the bad guy in The Cell.
So it's fitting that most of the music sounds like jigsaw puzzles: showers of tiny bits and pieces that interlock as complex, coherent songs. Modeled around her merely adequate, studio-assisted voice, J.Lo shamelessly follows the lead of TLC, Destiny's Child, Janet Jackson and Madonna, as Lopez singsongs through one clever staccato construction after another.
Rodney ("Say My Name") Jerkins produced only two songs on J.Lo, and they're not his best. But his influence (along with Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs and their shared source, Timbaland) is all over the album, as acoustic guitars and computer-generated harpsichord tones pick out airy, minimalist lattices. Warning songs such as "That's Not Me" move in nervous, skittering syncopations, layering half-speed vocal lines over double-speed runs, creating a balance that might fly apart with one missed pager beep.
For ballads, Lopez tries to coo and whisper like Janet Jackson, inviting a "sweet kiss on my thigh" in "Come Over," though you have to wonder about her taste in men in "Secretly," which praises a guy whom she can smell across the room. When the songs move toward the dance floor — two of them explicitly call out to DJs — stringy sounds are replaced by brittle techno blips, as in the speedy pop-trance workout "Walking on Sunshine" (not the Katrina and the Waves song but a new one whose writers include Lopez and her boyfriend, Sean "Puffy" Combs).
Lopez hasn't forgotten her unusual position as a Latina who has triumphed in the American mainstream. But her latest nods to Latin pop sound contrived. She piles on Hispanic signifiers — bullfight trumpet in "Ain't It Funny," flamenco guitar in "Si Ya Se Acabo" — only to sound like she's repeatedly remaking Madonna's "Isla Bonita." Though Lopez doesn't repeat the mistake of placing her thin voice alongside a vastly superior singer (as she did in duets with Marc Anthony on her 1999 debut, On the 6), she can't stand up to the horn sections in "Carino" or "Dame," either.
Most of the songs on J.Lo, for all their craftsmanship, are easy to trace to last year's hits. And while dance pop doesn't necessarily demand great singers, Lopez is just scraping by. Her presence fades with every note she sings, until she sounds too convincingly ordinary. Maybe she'd be better off playing the urban Everyhottie as a speaking role.