Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Soft Revolution: Jennifer Lopez's "This Is Me...Then" Turns 10

Alternate shot from the This Is Me...Then photo shoot
2002 was a very good year for Jennifer Lopez. Sitting atop mass successes in film, music, and product endorsements, the Lopez brand was solid. Lopez's movie magic usually drew less detractors than her music musings did. Even with compelling songs like "If You Had My Love," "Waiting For Tonight," and "Play" the parent records felt secondary, almost hobby-like.

Yet the mentioned collection of songs bore an undeniable artistry peeking around the corner of the unworthy album fares of On the 6 (1999) and J.Lo (2000). Also at this juncture, alongside her monopolizing sweep in entertainment, Lopez had found love with actor Ben Affleck. It was out of this union that Jennifer Lopez created her first declaratory statement in This Is Me...Then (2002). The title, an immediate nod toward the past tense, sought to capture a moment in Lopez's life. This Is Me...Then ended up as the first of three recordings that'd (finally) bedrock Lopez as a real singer in her own right.

The History
The launch pad for This Is Me...Then was ripe for good fortune. The three years preceding Lopez's third set saw Lopez go from up-and-coming actress to pop superstar. Her debut On the 6 and its follow-up J.Lo had gone on to multiple platinum certifications. Lopez rode into 2001 on the back of the remixed versions of her J.Lo singles "I'm Real" and "Ain't It Funny". The remixes tied Lopez into the (then) power amassing Murder Inc. hip-hop/R&B empire that produced Ashanti and Ja Rule. Rule himself appeared on both the remixes. The alternate sides featured on J to tha Lo! The Remixes that manifested in early 2002. It became the most successful remix album in the history of the American Billboard chart, and the first remix LP to claim the number one spot on said chart.

Lopez as an actress had only gained more traction. From 2001 through 2002 The Wedding Planner (which topped the film box office the same time J.Lo topped the charts), Angel Eyes, Enough, and Maid in Manhattan all kept Lopez prominent. In actuality, because of her omnipresence, Lopez could have sang the veritable phone book and it'd strike gold. Amid Lopez's hurried pace, she found the time to sit down and conceptualize her third player.

The Record
Even with her enthusiastic interpolations of R&B and hip-hop in her pop, Lopez's harshest critics usually argued that she lacked the conviction to pull off the material. The Bronx born Latina was 31 to 32 when This Is Me...Then was underway in its recording. This meant that she was 11 or 12, at least, in 1982 when New York City was teeming with new life after the often discussed post-disco blowout. The range of acts Lopez was exposed to had to be endless and varied, and she decided to use her third album as an out to explore those meatier musical leanings.

Outtake from This Is Me...Then 
Spurned onward by the fast-developing courtship to Ben Affleck, Lopez and longtime friend/producer Cory Rooney saw the chance to connect to her personae in an intimate fashion. Lopez co-wrote nine of the 11 cuts featured with additional assistance from Troy Oliver, Bernard Edwards Jr., Dan Shea, Trackmasters, Ron G., Dave McPherson, Rich Shelton, Kevin Veney, Loren Hill, and Reggie Hamlet. Before, Lopez had worked only in contemporary sounds, whereas This Is Me...Then managed a vintage, soft, sensual, and warming air.

Pockets of amber-gold hued woodwinds, strings, and horns flowered all over, equally natural and sampled. Lopez's sample choices were smart, at times familiar, and surprising: "Set Me Free" by Teddy Pendergrass ("Still"), "Juicy Fruit" by Mtume and "Never Give Up on a Good Thing" by George Benson ("Loving You"), "P.S.K. What Does It Mean?" by Schoolly D. ("I'm Glad"), "You Are Everything" by The Stylistics ("The One"), "Very Special" by Debra Laws ("All I Have"), "Hi-Jack Enoch" by Light & The Light Brigade, "South Bronx" by Boogie Down Productions" and "Heaven & Hell is on Earth" by 20th Century Steel Band ("Jenny From the Block"), "Catch the Beat" by T Ski Valley ("You Belong to Me"), "Midnight Cowboy" by John Barry ("Baby I ♥ U").

Lopez was in fine voice, proving she had room to roam and showed massive improvement. She stretched on the yearning, morning after confessional of "Baby I ♥ U," and took to heartbreak hotel confines on a cover of Carly Simon's '77 Boys in the Trees hit "You Belong to Me". With the usage of the stated T Ski Valley groove "Catch the Beat," Lopez elevated the already jazzy side of the "You Belong to Me" and gave a supple, impeccable vocal.

Elsewhere, Lopez turned in lovely adult balladry in "I'm Glad," one of her unsung jewels.  Lyrically, the themes were mature ("I've Been Thinkin'," "Again") and rewarded in their tale spinning spans. Only "Dear Ben," the obvious nod to her relationship with Affleck, poured on the syrup, but it was tasteful syrup. The colorful cool of "Loving You" relaxed, but the swagger of "Jenny From the Block" (with verses from MC's Jadakiss and Styles P) had Lopez (coyly) aware of her own mystique. Bobbing and weaving through the minty flutes, bursting sample shouts of her and Boogie Down Productions ("The Bronx!"), "Jenny From the Block" was the salt to the sugar of This Is Me...Then.

The Impact
"Jenny From the Block" led the singles, there would be four, from This Is Me...Then. Dropping two months before the album in September of 2002, "Jenny From the Block" smashed into the charts: U.S. Hot 100 #1, U.S. R&B #22, U.S. Latin Pop #25, U.K. #3, Canada #1, Australia #5. Playing to her already hip-hop configured singles previously, it was the blatant shoe-in for first single pick.

The three remaining singles from This Is Me...Then, two of which moved into early-to-mid 2003, were met with eager reception in U.S. and global markets: "All I Have" with LL Cool J (U.S. Hot 100 #1, U.S. R&B #4, Canada #17, U.K. #2, Australia #12), "I'm Glad (U.S. Hot 100 #32, U.S. R&B #19, U.S. Dance Music/Club Play #4, Canada #8, U.K. #11, Australia #10), "Baby I ♥ U" (U.S. Hot 100 #72, U.S R&B #55, U.K. #3).

Still from the music video shoot for "I'm Glad"
Released on November 19, 2002 This Is Me...Then continued Lopez's hit streak with her albums: U.S Billboard 200 #2, U.S Billboard Top R&B/Hip Hop #5, U.S. Billboard Internet #2, Canada #5, U.K. #13, AU #14, Oricon #19. The record eventually grabbed 2.5 million sales in the United States alone (double platinum), and attained 6 million worldwide (Canada: double platinum, U.K.: platinum, AU: platinum).

There was a halving in Lopez's album sales, J.Lo placed platinum four times in the U.S., here This Is Me...Then did half those numbers. Far from a poor showing, the softening had two major variables at play. First, Lopez's switch into an overtly adult, wider pop sound (versus just dance or hip-hop) clearly confused the casual followers. Secondly, the fatigue of Lopez's media overexposure was slowly beginning to rear its head, and the latter singles from This Is Me...Then felt that pressure in America.

Critically speaking, Lopez had her detractors still, Village Voice writer Jon Caramanica comically opined:
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.

That opinion couldn't even cede, rightfully, that Lopez had made an attempt to step forward in an big way. However, there were others who managed to lead the tide that showed improving critical favor for Lopez. Slant Magazine pop writer Sal Cinquemani stated:
Jennifer Lopez makes a surprising step toward more adult-oriented R&B on her third studio album. This Is Me…Then mixes the old with the new to varying degrees of success and manages to find the right formula for Lopez's slinky vocal. Ripe with live instrumentation and stripped of the Latin-pop numbers that, though good, never seemed quite authentic, This Is Me…Then is more unified than its predecessors. Though Lopez's voice is best suited for dance-pop ("Waiting for Tonight" is still her best single), the album forsakes such pleasures for a richer, fuller sound. Lopez will no doubt earn a grain of respect from critics but the commercial cost is yet to be seen.
Cinquemani immediately recognized the creative victory won with This Is Me...Then, but also observed that commercially Lopez might lose ground. That she didn't completely care raised eyebrows. Jennifer Lopez? Making dares to show her expressive muscles? It definitely elevated the stakes.

"I'm Glad"
Directed By: David LaChapelle

The album wrapped around the time Lopez's 2003 film partnership with former beau Affleck, Gigli, was savaged in the press and box offices. The last single from This Is Me...Then,  "Baby I U," initially boasted intercut scenes from Gigli. When the film tanked, the video was re-released in its non-Gigli styled format. Lopez took a year sabbatical before returning with 2005's muddled and transitional Rebirth. A year separated that album and the two that finally rivaled This Is Me...Then for creative sparks: 2007's Como Ama una Mujer and Brave.
Without This Is Me...Then, those two recordings never could have come to life. Lopez's need to risk, to let her music speak for her made her more than just a pale celebrity shade; it made her real. In pop music that spirit and spunk is what keeps Jennifer Lopez as one of the last American pop figures to really matter and work at wanting to matter. Four and a half out of five stars.-QH
[Editor's Note: This Is Me...Then is readily in print in all physical and digital outlets. For current information on Jennifer Lopez, visit her official site.-QH]


Anonymous said...

nice idea.. thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

loved this article!, agree 100% we need one for Brave and Como Ama Una Mujer and the downgrade LOVE? was as an album. Please!!!!