In March 2011, the New York Times profiled Jennifer Lopez, detailing her glamorous life in the promotional run-up to her seventh album, Love?, then marketed as her comeback album after a four-year break from music. Its headline touted her as “Jennifer Lopez, the People’s Pop Star,” an allusion to her then-new judging gig on American Idol and her reinvented public image as the fortysomething mother of twins and wife to Marc Anthony (whom she has since divorced). On Tuesday, Lopez released A.K.A., her first studio album since, and if that Times headline was ever accurate, it certainly doesn’t seem so now.
Billboard reports that the new album might sell 30,000 copies in its first week—not quite half what Mariah Carey’s latest sold in its opening week and Lopez’s lowest-ever first-week sales number for a studio album. The critical response hasn’t been kind either. The Daily Beast calls A.K.A. “at best, a hodgepodge of rip-offs of other musicians’ styles and, at worst, just horribly bland.” Grantland’s Molly Lambert, chronicling J.Lo’s bumpy transition into “MILF pop,” puts it bluntly: “This has not been the best month to be Jennifer Lopez.”
And yet, none of that matters. Because for the last 15 years, dating back to her multiplatinum 1999 debut, On the 6, Jennifer Lopez has quietly remained one of her generation’s most consistent female pop stars. She also remains one of the most important Latina pop stars. I don’t want to overstate her musical greatness: Her albums have always had more filler than they should. But that’s part of the point—they’ve always had such tracks. As tends to happen, she was probably overpraised at the peak of her popularity. But now that her records’ sales have begun to wane, her musical career is becoming distinctly underrated.
She began that career in strong, albeit imitative fashion, mimicking Mariah Carey’s late-’90s style, recording songs like “Feelin’ So Good” that featured local rappers (Big Pun, Fat Joe) to flaunt her Bronx roots. Those early albums also demonstrated Lopez’s ear for club-ready production, and 1999’s excellent “Waiting for Tonight” (her best song) and “Let’s Get Loud” made her arguably the leading artist in the dance-pop movement at the time. She’s continued to make perfectly crafted danceable pop, most recently with 2011’s “On the Floor” (which set a record as the most viewed video by a female singer). And she also nailed the hip-hop/pop ballad, with the LL Cool J-featuring “All I Have.”
Her last three albums, in contrast to her first four, have all failed to go gold (500,000 copies sold) in the U.S. But musically, Lopez has remained current, collaborating with in-demand producers (Max Martin, Detail) and songwriters (Ryan Tedder, The-Dream), and featuring of-the-moment stars like Pitbull and Iggy Azalea on her tracks.
Really, none of J.Lo’s albums post-2002’s This Is Me… Then—her last real hit—are deserving of the amount of negative criticism they have received. Yes, they’re occasionally awkward in their attempts at reinvention. Unpack those albums, though, and you’ll find they each contain at least one overlooked gem—be it a self-reflective ballad about her divorce or a slow-burning scorcher with Azalea—that demonstrates her resiliency as a pop star. Don’t believe me? Listen for yourself below.
“Step Into My World” (Rebirth, 2005)
“Te Voy a Querer” (Como Ama una Mujer, 2007)
“Wrong When You’re Gone” (Brave, 2007)
“Until It Beats No More” (Love?, 2011)
“Dance Again” (Dance Again… The Hits, 2012)
“Acting Like That” ft. Iggy Azalea (A.K.A., 2014)