How Jennifer Lopez Quietly Pulled Off A Mid-Career Comeback

Jennifer Lopez has always had hits, but she’s never felt as much like an “icon” as she does now.

Capitol Records

A glowing Jennifer Lopez career retrospective video played at last month’s Billboard Music Awards before the entertainer was given the Icon Award, a four-year-old vaguely defined prize that’s been awarded so far to Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Neil Diamond.

The video rattled off her accomplishments — 1.4 billion box office receipts, 75 million records sold — and included the praise of other musicians. “This is only the beginning of her story,” a voiceover said.

Fifteen years since her debut album, 1999’s On The 6, it seems unlikely this is really only the beginning, but her latest LP, A.K.A., out next Tuesday in the United States, makes a compelling case that Lopez is in the middle of a mid-career renaissance.

Lopez performing “I Luh Ya Papi” on American Idol. Fox / Via youtube.com

Pop music is a young person’s game. An artist like Lopez, 44 and on the eve of her eighth studio album, often has a harder time making pop radio and winning over new fans than artists half her age do, especially after several years of underperforming album sales and abandoned buzz singles. But Lopez is turning new heads this year, thanks to American Idol.

The faded relevance of the show is well-documented, and ratings for the most recent season finale in May were less than half what they were when Lopez began, but regardless, she’s been able to use it to keep herself in the public eye and introduce herself to a new audience.

Lopez became the first contemporary female pop star to become a reality show judge when she joined Idol in 2011. An industry veteran, she was more relevant as a musician than Paula Abdul ever was during her Idol tenure, but still eight years removed from her last top 10 hit as a lead artist. Mid-career female artists have since become a staple on judging panels, lured by the paycheck and the chance to be beamed into millions of American living rooms that might not be spinning their records as frequently as they used to.

Musician judges, female or otherwise, have parlayed their reality show gigs to chart hits with varying degrees of success, and Lopez has been one of the more successful. Months after joining Idol, she scored her highest-charting song since 2003 when “On The Floor” featuring Pitbull reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and in 2012, she embarked on her first-ever world tour.

A.K.A. aims to capitalize on Lopez’s resurgence, with credits from music heavyweights. “I got to work with everybody I wanted to work with,” Lopez told reporters at an event BuzzFeed attended in May.

The bouncy “First Love,” co-written and co-produced by trusted hitmaker Max Martin, laments not having met a true love sooner, while “Big Bootie” featuring Pitbull celebrates the virtues of a large badonk over a danceable Diplo beat. Lopez said she was unsure about including the song on her album because of its title, but decided to add the “fun happy track people could love” after her kids heard the song and liked it.

The record includes a handful of songs about breakups including the slinky, minimalist “So Good,” an album highlight, and the mid-tempo ballad “Emotions,” co-written by Chris Brown. “I always sang about love,” Lopez said in May. “It was always love in a certain way. A fairy tale way. I realized love is something different.” She was referencing her 2012 divorce with Marc Anthony, but we now know her relationship with backup dancer Casper Smart has also ended. Word of the breakup conveniently surfaced last week in the lead-up to A.K.A.’s release, despite being a “process that started a few months ago,” according to Us Weekly.

On paper, A.K.A. looks like a hit, a J.Lo record for people who haven’t bought a J.Lo record in years, but lead single “I Luh Ya Papi” has since fallen off the Hot 100 from a peak of No. 77 despite its catchy and meme-worthy chorus, and follow-up “First Love” has yet to chart.

Career-resetting albums 15 years in, like Madonna’s Ray of Light and Mariah Carey’s The Emancipation of Mimi, are rare. That kind of triumph, A.K.A. is not. Lopez has often lagged behind the rest of the surviving pop music class of 1999 in terms of album sales, critical acclaim, and ability to fill arenas, but her hits have become vital, and the breathless introduction she received at the Billboard Music Awards seemed natural, despite her position in pop culture only a few years ago.

Aided by Idol screen time, Lopez has erased or at least softened the memories of the payola scandal her record company settled in 2005 and the dearth of hit songs in the late ’00s. And regardless of A.K.A.’s first-week sales, Lopez’s continued upgrade of her image seems likely. The Spanish-language “Adrenalina” she’s featured on with Puerto Rican singer Wisin and Ricky Martin has more than double the YouTube views of “I Luh Ya Papi,” and she’s scheduled to play for a global audience at the World Cup.

Lopez’s reaction to setback has been resilience instead of discouragement, and rather than reinventing herself, she dug in her heels, content to literally put on old clothes (she wore an updated version of the breast-baring green Versace dress from the 2000 Grammy Awards at a Bronx concert last week) and make music that feels like an obvious extension of her early chart smashes. She’s always had the hits, she’s just never felt quiet like an “icon” like she does now.

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