Pop careers are funny things—good music sustains them, but there’s also something inexplicable about their momentum, and they can go up and down with the rhythm of the public’s sometimes fickle and random interests. Often, it’s the way you seize those hard-to-predict hot moments that becomes your legacy. In a career that’s now lasted 20 years, Jennifer Lopez has, through trial and error, figured out how to ride the waves of success in incredible ways.
2014 is shaping up to be a banner year for her and her music, but it took some re-building to get here. Her early career was filled with many, many era-defining blends of pop and hip-hop, epitomized most triumphantly by the sparkly, neighborhood-repping “Feeling So Good,” a collaboration with fellow Bronx Latinos Fat Joe and Big Pun. There was a time in 2001 that one could easily argue that Jennifer Lopez was the most famous woman in America—she was, at least, the first person to have a number one album and film in the same week, when her sophomore record J.Lo and the movie The Wedding Planner both hit the top in January of that year. Her relationship with Ben Affleck helped set the tone for modern celebrity culture and made her into one half of the iconic Bennifer, but the relationship’s demise after a flop movie that they co-starred in, Gigli, marked a sliding-down career that even a relatively successful third album, This Is Me… Then, couldn’t quite fix. After two more commercially and critically unsuccessful albums, Brave and Rebirth, she left her label Epic and negotiated a deal to join the cast of American Idol in 2010, which effectively launched J.Lo back into the zeitgeist, toning down her glitziness and remaking her into an American Sweetheart. Seizing the momentum, she followed up the next year with Love?, a smart, if uninteresting, album of songs that capitalized on pop’s newfound love for EDM, which J.Lo presciently predicated all the way back in 1999 with “Waiting for Tonight.” And though it was Love? that re-cemented J.Lo’s hit-making potential, a new album, A.K.A., out June 17th of this year, looks like it will not only be a smash hit, but as great a pop album as her best earlier efforts.
Previewed this week at a press conference in Malibu, her 10th album is loaded with big-time, on-the-money collaborators like Max Martin, DJ Mustard, Diplo and Detail, the influential and under-appreciated producer who made the record’s awesome first single “I Luh Ya Papi.” The best divas know how to turn their personal struggles into great art, and J.Lo says she was compelled to do top-notch work on A.K.A. after her marriage to Latin pop megastar Marc Anthony ended in divorce. “I realized I was stronger than I thought I was. I came back from my first world tour with my two babies who were four at the time, and got divorced before that,” she said at the press conference. “I was dying to get back in the studio, explore what [I've gone through], and see what that meant for my music.”
“I Luh Ya Papi” is a perfect, winking nod to the two main narratives that have propelled J.Lo’s career, the diva and the down-home girl. In the video, she wears the infamously glamorous Versace robe that made her a fashion icon on the Grammy’s red carpet back in 2000, now immortalized as just “The Dress” with its own Wikipedia page, but she also playfully updates her humble Bronx-born “Jenny from the Block” character by dancing with two friends in sweatpants and using a sample in the beat from a Big Pun tribute song. Then there’s the clip’s primary, meme-friendly conceit: the reverse-objectification of men. Like a feminist re-imagining of Jay Z’s bachelor classic “Big Pimpin’,” J.Lo fills a Miami mansion and crispy white yacht with shirtless beefcakes who wash her cars and get their speedos snapped. Besides being a visual gift to her legions of female and gay fans, it’s also a pointed and playful revenge fantasy after spending two decades of having to live up to the industry’s insane beauty standards for women. And although he manages to avoid actual screentime with any of the shirtless hunks, the fact that she places a verse from fellow South Bronx-native French Montana, a dude famous for a song called “Break a Bitch Down,” right in the middle of this hurricane of muscles, is some kind of beautiful comedy.
The song’s Spanglish title is also a clear career path forward to a successful future: this spring, J.Lo teamed up with Puerto Rican artists Wisin and Ricky Martin for a global smash, “Adrenalina,” that was sung in Spanish and didn’t need to hit American Top 40 radio to rack up over 51 million views on YouTube. Latinos are the fast-growing population in American states like California, and J.Lo, proud of her South Bronx Puertro Rican roots since day one and quite possibly the biggest Latina pop star that America has ever known, is poised to play a big role as a 21st century ambassador for Latin culture and music. Her 2007 Spanish-language album, Como Ama Una Mujer, had the highest debut sales for a Spanish album in the US and the highest digital sales for a Spanish album of all time. Further cementing her reach, she just scooped and embarrassed former boyfriend Diddy by buying music channel Fuse right from under his eyes so that it would become part of NuvoTV, the Latino cable channel that she became a minority owner of in 2012.
J.Lo is practically the archetype of the modern diva, and the modern diva knows that there are as many downs as their are ups. But 2014 looks like it’s destined to be a high, and she seems up to the task of leveraging that momentum into album sales and great songs. “I haven’t gotten the album done: for me, until they tell me I have to turn it in, I keep going until the last minute, I keep creating, I keep trying new songs, new things, tweaking the ones that I love,” she told DC radio station 99.5. “It’s gonna be different.”