Shouldn't a 'rebirth' imply some sort of major shift? Not so, for J. Lo.
With the arrival of Rebirth, we are now witnessing the fourth album in the mind-bogglingly successful career of one Jennifer Lopez. One might ask the question of how she's maintained enough popularity to even get to a fourth album, but really, it's relatively simple -- she is adept as anyone in this new century at being absolutely everything to absolutely everyone. She can present herself as a strong-willed woman who bows to no man, while at the same time wearing a total of three square inches of clothing. She shows up in awful movie after awful movie, but she does it with a pleasant enough smile that people still seem to care when the next awful movie comes out. She even goes so far as to tread an ambiguous line of race, as she flaunts her Latino heritage in her public life and plays an Italian in The Wedding Planner, all while most of the general populace isn't sure whether to be outraged or indifferent if and when the N-word pops out of her mouth.
Her music has the same sorts of multiple-personality issues, given that she's never quite decided between pure pop, club-friendly dance-pop, or pop-oriented hip-hop as her genre of choice. This sort of pseudo-genre hopping could well be revered in more skilled artists, but in the hands (and hips and vocal cords) of someone such as Ms. Lopez, the insistence on flitting from one pop subgenre to the next betrays a lack of clear identity, albeit one that to date hasn't affected her stratospheric chart positioning. She is what her public wants her to be, and nothing more.
Four albums and six years into what has now turned into a bona fide recording career, it surely hasn't escaped Ms. Lopez that that public would like a little bit of expansion and experimentation in her musical output; sure she's Jenny from the block, but so what? A title like Rebirth hints at just the sort of change she expects we all would love to see -- carrying with it the connotation of new beginnings and a shedding of the past, it's clear that Lopez wants her own shot at legitimacy in the music scene. In the past year, she's seen Beyoncé blow up on the charts, yet pull serious gigs like the Super Bowl National Anthem and house vocalist at the Oscars. Who better to mimic when trying to make a play for artistic credibility?
Rebirth is that play, and despite the absurdity inherent in that previous sentence, the result could have been a lot worse.
The artist formerly known as J.Lo steps into the role of R&B chanteuse on Rebirth, mostly sacrificing the hip-hop and the techno beats in favor of midtempo chill. She's hired all the right producers -- Rodney Jerkins is here, Timbaland is here, even OutKast's Big Boi is here for an attempt at the redefinition of Jennifer Lopez. Unfortunately, these producers fall headfirst into Lopez's own clichés, rather than trying to help reshape her outside of her own boundaries. Big Boi's "Still Around" is fine enough as pleasant, candy-coated pop with a '70s groove, but it keeps Lopez's voice constantly in that slightly too-high range that more often than not approximates the wail of a sick cat. One of the revelations gained in listening to Rebirth is just how smooth Lopez sounds when she's sticking to her lower range, and how rarely producers and writers let her do just that. Timbaland's "He'll Be Back" features his trademarked, now-overdone squiggly eastern synth sounds, but he tones down his normally syncopated beats in favor of something banal enough for Jenny Lo to handle.
It's no surprise when one notices just who the two people are who do manage to force Lopez out of her shell: Hubby of the Year Marc Anthony and Rich Harrison, a.k.a. the man responsible for (surprise!) Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love". Harrison lays down a new set of loops out of what must be an endless supply of horn samples for first single "Get Right" (and the accompanying remix with a laughably awful Fabolous), which is more jazzy and funky than a Jennifer Lopez song has any right to be. The song keeps it simple, restricting the backing track to those infectious horns and a simple backbeat for most of the song, and "Get Right" manages the feat of being the grooviest dance track Lopez has released since J.Lo's "Play". Anthony dominates the other end of the spectrum, being responsible for the one successful ballad on the disc, the theatrical "(Can't Believe) This is Me". Sure, it sounds exactly like one might expect a Marc Anthony song to sound, and the production is way, way over the top with its Santana-esque guitar solos and sweeping strings, but this, now, is the sound of Lopez truly stretching her boundaries. The overblown production compensates for any deficiencies in the voice singing over it, and the song goes a long way toward convincing me that there just might be an actual human being behind the carefully crafted marketing machine.
Unfortunately, such strength is rare in the world of Rebirth, and more often than not, such artistic exploration is sacrificed in favor of, say, an ill-fated, milquetoast duet with Fat Joe (which, incidentally, is now making noise as the album's second single). As much as Jennifer Lopez and her army of handlers would like us to believe she's expanding her horizons, she's really just sticking to the formula that got her here -- give the people what they want. It may be a slight shift in style, it may be totally harmless, and it may contain the occasional surprise, but Rebirth is anything but the renaissance that its title promises.