Every generation has its share of pop idols that are blessed with great songwriters, catchy hooks and addictive beats and not much else. Jennifer Lopez is one such idol. For almost a decade now, she’s spun off high-gloss pop albums, rife with songs that songs that sound great when you’re playing the car stereo. The fact that those songs sound great has much to do with the songwriting and more likely, the production. Lopez is not a singer of any great value, and you get the feeling that if she were not already a successful actress and dancer, no way she would have gotten a record deal and a lot of her songs would be just as good-if not better-had they been sung by someone else.
While Lopez has certainly had a successful music career, how many people out there actually go into their CD collections and pull out one of her old albums to listen to on purpose? Her music has a temporary appeal that ultimately results in quite a few copies of the Lopez catalog in used bins across the country. As someone who has owned each of her previous five English-language albums at one time or another, I can say that they’re fairly interchangeable. Her first couple of albums had a more pronounced dance/Latin influence, but everything since has had the same fairly disposable vaguely urban sound that positions her as sort of a 21st century Lisa Lisa. Throw some danceable beats together, pay for a couple of recognizable samples maybe add a guest rapper or two, and voila! You have an instant J. Lo album!
She stepped out of her comfort zone earlier this year by making a complete Latin-pop album, and the title of her newest English effort is Brave, so I assumed that this album would be a little different, perhaps more daring vocally or musically. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Brave is more of the same when it comes to Lopez. It’s danceable pop/R&B in the vein of all her previous releases. I guess you could look at that in a good way. She could have gone for the trendy sounds of a Timbaland for this album (the two have worked together before), or gone the simple but popular schoolyard-anthem route favored by Gwen Stefani or Fergie. However, not a lot on this album sticks to the ribs. Lopez’s singing is as bland as ever, and the production doesn’t really pop in the way that previous hit singles like “Waiting For Tonight” and “Get Right” did. While there are a few bright moments interspersed through the album, this might be the weakest effort of Lopez’s career, and that’s saying quite a bit when you consider that 2002’s This Is Me…Then is the only one of her efforts that’s slightly better than average.
In an era when producers like 9th Wonder, Kanye West and Just Blaze are doing new and inventive things with samples, it’s sort of sad to see Lopez still relying on Puffy-style beat jacking for many of the songs on her new album. The first single “Do It Well” pilfers Eddie Kendricks’ over-sampled “Keep on Truckin’”, the intriguingly titled “Hold It Don’t Drop It” lifts sizable chunks from the Tavares disco classic “It Only Takes a Minute”, and “Gotta Be There” swipes it’s title from a Motown-era Michael Jackson classic while also borrowing a good amount from another MJ oldie, “I Wanna Be Where You Are”. So much so that it can almost be considered a duet. If you like this song, it makes better sense to just listen to the original. And this is actually one of the album’s better tracks.
Brave reaches beyond only mediocrity twice over the course of it’s 40 minutes. The opening track “Stay Together” is a peppy throwback dance tune. It could’ve easily been a hit during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s heyday of dance-pop, when acts like The Cover Girls and Seduction were the rage. Oddly, the album’s other standout track is the piano-spiked ballad “Wrong When You’re Gone”. The pretty melody and catchy hook combine to lift this track above the generic remainder of the album.
I’d imagine that you know what to expect if you’re picking up a Jennifer Lopez album, and Brave doesn’t deviate much from her typical pattern. Her thin voice (which sounds more computer-processed than usual on this album) doesn’t have much in the way of character, leaving the song to rise and fall based on their amount of musical ear candy. Lyrically, you’re not getting much beyond the typical love song (the rock-etched “Mile in These Shoes” can be classified as semi-autobiographical and completely embarrassing), and there’s not even an interesting guest appearance to be had (Ludacris, the album’s only guest performer, obviously had a paycheck and only a paycheck on his mind when he phoned in a rhyme on “Do It Well”’s remix). Great pop artists, think Madonna, Janet or even Christina and Justin, have enough personality to elevate their music past the level of fluff, and when that fails them, they get saved by ace production. Brave has neither a strong artistic personality nor boffo production, and as a result, ends up being just another disposable pop record with no redeeming value.
// Notes from the Road
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