Made in Manhattan

Flip Off the Ol' Block

Session 8: 103 days until album release: When I showed up to the studio today, my engineers Bruce and Peter were huddled over some computer. Ben and I started making out on the couch. Ben Affleck—he's my new husband! I mean, boyfriend! Whoops! After about a half-hour I heard this beautiful voice coming out of the computer. I was like, "Who's that? I wish I could sound like her!" "You're in luck," they told me. "That's you!" "But I haven't even begun to sing in the booth yet," I said, all confused. They told me that with all this technology they've got, I won't even really need to show up to the studio that much. It's like the computer memorized my voice or something, then made it a little prettier. All you have to do is type in the words. (Note: Can these guys type?)

Jennifer Lopez makes albums for the same reasons you and I give holiday gifts to people we don't exactly like: vanity and obligation. See, being a singer is what saved her from being a mediocre actress, which is what saved her from having to hotfoot and Harlem shake for the rest of her pre-osteoporosis life as a Fly Girl. Being a singer is also, inexplicably, what made her truly famous. Lopez's turn as a tough-yet-seduceable cop in 1998's Out of Sightcertainly gave her a platform, but her debut album, On the 6, released the following year (and its breakout single "If You Had My Love") birthed a phenomenon.

Jenny commands as much per picture as any woman in Hollywood, is probably more bankable than Julia, Reese, and the rest of the fair-skinned troupe, and has a higher-ranking beau, Ben Affleck, than anyone save Jennifer Aniston. But somehow, in returning to the "minor" medium of music, she's cleansed. When it comes to fiction, the lies are more believable when she's playing herself. "Jenny From the Block" continues the conceit of "I'm Real," from her last album, J.Lo, and "I'm Gonna Be Alright (remix)," her grimy collaboration with Nas. Using the same flute sample the Beatnuts flipped for "Off the Books," a genuine Boricua classic (really, she researched it!), as well as a steady diet of "South Bronx!" yelps pulled from the Boogie Down Productions anthem of the same name, Jenny aims to fast-talk herself into authenticity: "I stay grounded even as the amounts roll in." It matters not that guest rappers Styles and Jadakiss are from Yonkers, not the Bronx, or that the most humble thing about the accompanying video is, well, Ben Affleck. "Can't forget to stay real," she purrs at one point, "To me it's like breathing."

Session 20: 29 days until album release: After I realized yesterday that I forgot to keep it real, I flew back to New York, making sure the pilot flew over the Bronx on the way to Teterboro. It was just like I remembered it—lots of tall buildings, lots of big streets, and still only a few ways to get down to Manhattan. As soon as I landed today, I started writing a new song about how all these haters, they can't say a thing to me. I'm still Jenny, Jenny from the block. Used to have a little, and now I have a lot, but I know where I came from. And the 6 train is still running, too! So what are we going to do about the video, anyway? Somebody should call the LOX. Ben loves lox.

Just as J.Lo was more or less Lopez's kiss-off record to Puffy (see "That's Not Me," a particularly disturbing number produced by Diddy himself), this third album is practically a paean to Affleck, the latest in her ever lightening relay team of lovebirds (who's next—Justin Timberlake?). Judging by the number of love ditties here, you'd never know the two had been dating barely a few months when this album was recorded, if that. But J.Lo is nothing if not . . . efficient. On "Again," she confesses, "I was scared to let go and trust your love," but on "I'm Glad," she exhales deeply: "I think I'm in love/Damn, finally!"

And love don't cost a thing, but songwriters are expensive! Lopez takes a writing credit on each of this album's 12 tracks save two, one of which is a toothless Carly Simon cover. She must have felt the urge to save money after seeing just how much it was going to cost to transform her rivulet of vocals into a tidal (sine) wave. Although the robotic airbrushing (and de facto whitening) of her last album cover is swapped for a more earthy look this time out, the cyberLatina is still in effect vocally. This Is Mehas to be among the most misleading album titles of recent years—this record is a studio creation, through and through. What's most embarrassing isn't the fact of the sound manipulation itself—even Mariah "Eight Octave" Carey benefits from the odd knob twiddle—but that with so much technology at her disposal, this collection of sappy love jams still sounds samey and dull. If an atonal bunny like Kylie Minogue can morph into a postmodern sex chanteuse thanks to a few disco filters, how is a mega-millionaire Bronx-expat public-fantasy bombshell making the least interesting music on the pop charts today? This Is Me is like the gift you get from your grandmother—awkward, unwanted, and blindly self-righteous. Used to have a little, and still does.

 
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