Sharps & flats

Baby got back, but can Jennifer Lopez sing?

Topics: Music, Jennifer Lopez,

There’s always a cynical cloud of suspicion in the air when a celebrity who’s known primarily as an actor cuts a record album. In other countries, particularly France, it’s practically a tradition that a film star should try his or her hand at singing, even if he or she really can’t, at least in the technical sense: Jeanne Moreau, for instance, could never give Edith Piaf a run for her money, but her singing has a distinctive charm that’s inextricably linked with her appeal as a personality. Certain actors are perfectly capable of translating into song the same kinds of feelings and sensations that they’re able to convey on-screen, even if their technical prowess is somewhat limited when it comes to singing.

Jennifer Lopez, appealing as she’s been in movies like last year’s “Out of Sight,” isn’t the actress, the personality or probably even the singer Moreau is. But her debut, “On the 6,” isn’t the sort of record to just dismiss out of hand. A clutch of distinctly Latin-flavored dance tracks and ballads (several of which are sung in Spanish), “On the 6″ is an earnest record, obviously made with care by an artist who, whatever her shortcomings, clearly wants to be able to communicate through music the same depth of emotion that a good actor does on-screen — it doesn’t sound like your typical cheap grab for pop stardom.

Not to say that it isn’t a grab for pop stardom: “On the 6″ is about as mainstream as a record can get, almost every track tailor-made for summer Top 40 radio or the dance floor. But save for a few completely dismissible generic dance tracks (“Waiting for Tonight”) and a couple of drippy ballads (“Promise Me You’ll Try”), “On the 6″ is an expertly and enjoyably crafted record. Overall, it’s beautifully produced: A number of producers, including Puff Daddy and Emilio Estefan Jr., had their hands in the project, and for a record with so many different personalities involved, the result sounds surprisingly unified. (It’s important to note that Puff Daddy, with whom Lopez is said to be romantically involved, contributes on only one track: There’s nothing to indicate that it’s in any way “his” record more than “hers.”) And even though most of the numbers on “On the 6″ fit squarely into the mold of your typical lightweight, throwaway dance record, some of the arrangements here are hardly ordinary: “Too Late” is anchored by a simple Spanish guitar motif that recurs and builds momentum; it’s a rippling run that sounds almost like a snippet of guitar practice, but its austerity suits the song perfectly, giving it some drama without too much self-important weight. There’s a piano passage in “It’s Not That Serious” that conjures the craziness of a squirrel skittering across a tin roof; it’s offset by the rhythmic surprise of beefy plucked strings.

But can Lopez sing? Well, kinda. Her voice has a sugary edge to it, and her phrasing is pleasingly straightforward and conversational (a lot like her acting, come to think of it). On several numbers, her vocals are multitracked into a buttery softness. Although her voice isn’t particularly distinctive, it does show some character. You can hear a kind of understated, intuitive intelligence in “Feelin’ So Good,” the Puff Daddy collaboration. The rap interlude that recurs throughout the song is so overtly masculine (it’s a rant about romantic rivalry, peppered with vague threats like “You better run when you see me coming through the back door”) that it almost seems tacked-on, until you realize that it’s intended to work as a counterpoint to Lopez’s vocal. “When I opened up my eyes today/Felt the sun shining on my face/It became so clear to me that everything is going my way,” Lopez sings, sounding so open-hearted that it’s clear she believes in the line, no matter how dorky it sounds. The song’s sexual politics are oversimplified (men get cranky and fight, women are infinitely cheerful), but what’s interesting about it is that Puff Daddy isn’t the one who ends up sounding dominant. Lopez’s guilelessness is so completely winning that — in the song, at least — you don’t doubt she’s got the guy wrapped completely around her finger.

The big problem with “On the 6″ is that it’s too drawn out, too padded. Why do we need two versions of “No Me Ames,” a duet with Marc Anthony? The florid “tropical remix,” laced with lots of Latin percussion and horns as bright as jungle vegetation, works beautifully: Anthony and Lopez’s fiery, accusatory-sounding vocals sound much more believable set against something you could actually dance to. The later, ballad version of the song just sounds redundant — it’s one place on the record where the strings sound gloppy and conventional.

There’s no doubt, though, that Lopez knows how to deliver entertainment value. “On the 6″ is one of those cheerful summer records, the kind of thing you might find yourself reaching for now and then through the last dog days of August. The equivalent of a sheer, pretty summer dress, it may not be substantial enough to last more than one season — but does it necessarily have to?

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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