A.K.A. * Jennifer Lopez * Pop * June 17, 2014
It has always been hard to define Jennifer Lopez as a singer. She is, by all accounts, a somewhat mediocre vocalist; but she still managed to have some of the biggest dance and urban hits through the early 2000’s. From the I’m Real (Remix) to Waiting for Tonight, it was hard to avoid Lopez on the radio for about six years.
But, much like Mariah Carey, she has seemed to have some problems since 2005. Her album Rebirth was certified platinum thanks to the shipping loophole in the RIAA counting rules but has actually only sold about 750,000 copies to date. Her next album, Brave, faired even worse, only managing to accrue about 900,000 copies sold worldwide with only 168,000 of those in the United States. After leaving Epic Records and moving to Island Records, her Love? album sold about three times better in the U.S. than the previous one (thanks to sponsorship deals that featured both Lopez and her songs in the their commercials and despite unfinished versions of most of the album’s tracks leaking more than three months before the scheduled release), but was still considered to be a critical and commercial flop.
She wasn’t absent from music, however. During the time that her album sells began to fall off she was still doing stints as a judge on American Idol, being asked to perform at award shows, selling out world tours, and being asked to feature on the songs of other artists. Most people thought that this showed that Lopez still had the musical “it” factor, but that the music that she was choosing for herself just wasn’t striking a chord with her audience anymore. Perhaps taking things back to her roots would revive that spark?
Now, after a three-year hiatus, Lopez is back with A.K.A. The promotion for the album has been primarily centered around her Jenny from the Block persona. Her chance to silence her naysayers and prove that she has the talent to top the charts, what will the diva serve us this time?
1. A.K.A. – The title track of the album immediately gives us a little stuttering synth backed by some bumping bass before transitioning into a Pitbull-styled dance track. The song seems to be about Lopez telling an old lover not to come back to her now just because he realizes what he let go and that he shouldn’t think he still knows her. This same message could be applied to the past ten years of her music career and the fanbase that seems to have abandoned her. The production is nice; dynamic with the internal genre switch coming seamlessly. Lopez’s vocals are what they usually are; hard to categorize. It’s not that she’s flat or pitchy, but her singing has always lacked a sense of emotionality without the visual element. It makes even some of her best songs of the past ten years more forgettable. The same is happening here. The verse from T.I. does help a little. He definitely seems more emotionally invested that Lopez and his braggadocio telling Lopez to forget what she’s heard because she doesn’t know him either works in the songs framework. Not an awful song, but not particularly memorable.
2. First Love – The second (official) single from this album, this track’s production is similar to that of the first track. Starting off with stuttering synth followed up by a pseudo-80’s pop beat that transitions into more EDM for the chorused. There does seem to be a little more energy than the title track and that contributes to the feeling that the listener gets. You will have a hard time keeping your foot from tapping and your booty from wiggling a little. Lopez’s vocals are better here, too. While there still feels like something is missing, she does seem more invested in the material and that translates into stronger adlibs and the background vocals and harmonies add depth to the overall tone. The concept is simple; she’s so totally in love with the man that she’s with that she wishes she had met him before anyone else she’s been with. Despite not really making much of an impact on the charts, this is still a standout track.
3. Never Satisfied – Slow songs have never really been Lopez’s strong suit and this track is no different. The production for this song about always wanting to make love to her man is engaging, sexy, and a perfect fit for the song. The rock-styled beat makes the listener think of a sexual hunger that needs to be satisfied. From the pounding drums to the what can only be described as moaning guitar licks that team with subtle piano and violins, this is a top-notch beatwork. What drags the song down is Lopez’s vocals. She is engaged in the material, but this is the type of song that is meant to show off the power of the singer’s voice and she just isn’t a good enough vocalist to bring out the full potential of the material. Many listeners will begin to wonder how the song would have sounded in more capable hands (my mind immediately went to Rihanna, who is also not a powerhouse vocalist but has the ability to pull of songs like this). Still, despite Lopez’s performance, there is reason enough to listen to this one more than once.
4. I Luh Ya Papi – This serves as the first (official) single for this album and will take listeners back to the early days of Lopez’s musical career. This is the type of fun, bouncy single that she became known for. While definitely not the best choice for a lead single, there is something redeemable about the song if you take it at face value. The concept is clearly stated; Lopez loves her man. The production by Detail is upbeat with a danceable bassline and a reworked sample of the first few bars of Big Pun’s It’s So Hard before using a more recognizable version of them during the French Montana verse. The song is ridiculously infectious, despite the bad lyrics and cringe-worthy title. Even French Montana gives one of his better verses for this. You will hate yourself for it, but you will have this song on replay for at least a month.
5. Acting Like That – About Lopez questioning the changing in her lover’s behavior since…something, this is one of the few times that Lopez’s vocals are an excellent match for the beatwork. The minimalist production consist primarily of several layers of bass and drums with a few sampled vocals mixed in to make the melody. Lopez’s vocals are minimal as well. There are very few adlib and it sounds as if she is singing the song the exactly the way it would be written in the sheet music. Iggy Azalea puts in an okay verse that isn’t bad but essentially just serves to make the song go past three minutes. The biggest issue is that you feel like you just walked in on the latter half of a conversation. There is no articulation in the lyrics of what is different about this man from before or what has made him change. Other than telling him that she has been there from day one and that she’s the baddest bitch in the world, you don’t get any feeling of what is important enough about this relationship to either person to make the hang on to it. Album filler at its best, this track is not particularly memorable.
6. Emotions – A snippet of this track was used in the final two week before the album release to show a different side of this album. The mid-tempo ballad has a okay production with a somber piano taking the lead. The beatwork descends into a bit of chaos towards the end as a repeating, echoing synth becomes more and more obvious over the more serious sounding elements. A better singer could have overcome that as a problem but, just like with Never Satisfied, this track that is meant to show vocal strength instead shows Lopez’s weaknesses. Her vocals come across as a little flat and blasts out like a horn in an attempt to create a vengeful delivery. It is a shame because this song features some of the better lyrics on the album. You would think that the song would be about Lopez dealing with the aftermath of a relationship that she wanted to save but, instead, it is about the relationship destroying the feeling inside her for the man she’s with to the point that she doesn’t care if she breaks his heart. While it is not the best vocal performance, it is worth a couple of listens.
7. So Good – This song actually feels like a remix of Emotions, with the more upbeat production playing more to Lopez’s abilities of a singer. About how she is done trying to please a man that doesn’t care for her and being ready to move on, this is a strong track. Lopez seems to do best vocally when she is engaged in the material but keeps her adlibs to a minimum. The production is really the interesting part of the song. The mid-tempo dancer has an energy to it that you would think would come from a song a little bit faster than this. The cycling synth has the hint of true techno, with a small phrase in each refrain being changed to make something more dynamic than it initially sounds. This will be a track that you will find yourself listening to again.
8. Let It Be Me – The intro of beautiful melodic guitar and violins for this Spanish-styled ballad sets the tone for something truly amazing. About the type of love that only seeks acknowledgement, this is a lovely track. The lyrics are strong and full of imagery. If falling in love is a crime/And the price to pay is my life/Give me the sword/Bring all the knives/Hand me the gun/I will not run are some of the first lyrics that greet the listener. For the most part, Lopez manages to shine vocally for about 3/4 of the track. She has you thoroughly engage until the key-change, then her voice has audible difficultly meeting the music challenge. Still, despite the vocal deficiencies, this is absolutely a standout track.
9. Worry No More – This song seems like a bit of a letdown after the heights of the previous track. About how she and her man hold each other down (in some possibly illegal activities), the lyrics are not nearly as strong and are highly repetitive. The production is monotonous and has the listener constantly waiting for the drop that is so subtle that it’s hard notice. The repeated piano refrain and choral oooh’s seem like the are on a loop and the track never really seems to fully get started. Lopez’s vocals are almost grating at this point, sounding as if she trying to affect some kind of accent that isn’t quite working. The Rick Ross verse isn’t much help as it is about what almost all of his verses are about; his money. There is nothing particularly interesting about this track and most people will skip it before it finishes the first time.
10. Booty – The last track on the standard edition, this was used as promotion in the weekend leading up to the album’s release. This is the obligatory Lopez/Pitbull dance track. The production is strong, starting off somewhat minimal and building up as the song progresses. The pounding bass and wiggle-like sound effect add the twerking atmosphere that this is undoubtedly trying to set. There really isn’t much to say about this one as it is a club single that seems to feature more of Lopez speaking than singing, although the four-t0-six bars per verse that she does put in are not bad. Pitbull’s verse is nothing special but does fit the theme just fine. Not a particularly memorable song as the two artists have better collaborations under their belt, but it is a good getting ready for the club or get the ladies on the floor in the club track.
11. Tens (Bonus Track) – Having Jennifer Lopez greet you with the phrase Snap bitches, snap is a little jarring until you realize that this song is a drag anthem. Shouting out to both her drag queens and real queens, you can see people strutting down a runway at a fashion show this. There is an undeniable similarity to Britney Spears’ Work Bitch except that this one doesn’t grate on the nerves quite as much. Lopez spends most of the track speaking in a sassy manner and it works for the atmosphere that the song is trying to set. The featured rapper, Jack Mizrahi (who sounds suspiciously like Pitbull), puts in some good bars and takes the energy level up a few notches. Not a particular good song, but there is an audience that will love it.
12. Troubleaux (Bonus Track) – The production of this song is a little off-kilter, with the saxophone sample running a little faster than the rest of it, but it works. With something that might remind listeners of the old show New York Undercover, there is something a little 90’s hip-hop about this one. It manages to have a strong groove factor to it for about two minutes, but Lopez’s vocals aren’t up to the challenge of the second verse key-change. The saving grace for this song is the verse by Nas. This track seems like it might have been made for him and you wonder if he will do a remix version where he replaces all of Lopez’s vocals with new verses. The concept is that moment when you’ve gotten to know someone well enough to know that they are going to be a problem for you and yet you can’t resist. Unlike I Luh Ya Papi, the cute spelling of the title doesn’t translate to catchy rhythms and memorable lines. Worth a couple of listens but ultimately skippable.
13. Expertease (Ready, Set, Go) [Bonus Track] – This song’s concept is about making her lover crave her. A little similar to Never Satisfied, but the Caribbean-esque production does give the song a slightly different feel. The highlight of this song is actually Lopez’s vocals. Her tone is strong without being overbearing and her adlibs are subtle but add much need depth. The fact that she doesn’t try to make any key-changes are do a little too much extra for this one makes you wish she had sung other songs on the album like this. In fact, the vocal performance on the chorus is so good, it actually doesn’t sound like her. A standout track without any qualifications.
14. Same Girl (Bonus Track) – Initially intended to be the first single for this album until low chart performance relegated it to promo track status, this takes Lopez back to a familiar concept; how real she is. The dynamic production is the star of this song. Lush violins coupled with march-esque drumline gives the track a sense of both nostalgia and strength. The lyrics are a well-worn path for Lopez at this point; she’s still Jenny from around-the-way and she hasn’t changed. Her vocals are standard as well, not particularly strong but not flat or off-key. The French Montana verse is nothing special either and reminds you why Excuse My French didn’t perform very well upon its release. This is album-filler for most people but the hardcore Lopez fans will love that she is getting back to her roots a little here.
All in all, this album is pretty mediocre. The production of the album is almost uniformly stellar but you realize that it’s only because Lopez’s vocals aren’t strong enough to carry the bulk of the songs. Were an instrumental version of the album to be released, I have no doubt most people would prefer that version to this. The sad thing is that most of the songs are not all that bad, but just couldn’t reach their full potential due to the abilities of the artist performing them. I would recommend taking a listen before buying as I guarantee that most listeners will not want the bulk of the track here.