Every era of pop has artists who work as a kind of fossil record – they may never put their name behind a great single, but their career is a useful indicator of pop’s shifting baselines and aesthetic whims. A track by them will tell you more about its year than any of its more idiosyncratic, or better, peers. J-Lo, I’d say, is one of these performers. If that seems unfair, it might be because her skills run a lot wider than music. In fact the main thing that sets Jennifer Lopez apart is how versatile she is – she’s shifted between film star, pop star (in Anglo and Latin markets), and TV personality and done solidly well at all of them. You can imagine a number of already-famous women deciding, at 30, that they’d like to get into music. But wanting is easier than doing. For J-Lo to fit so smoothly into millennial pop’s identity parade when her peers were far younger and with fewer built-up associations suggests unusual dexterity.
J-Lo is the pop incarnation of that very 00s figure, the flexible worker – pivoting, reskilling, and relaunching herself across a variety of disciplines with general success. The obvious and unkind rejoinder would be that she was a dilettante, her pop career a rich woman’s hobby. It was a line of attack that apparently bugged Lopez, since she countered it at exhausting length, with a rash of songs designed to prove her authenticity, her street roots and connections, and her refusal to let money define her. J-Lo did this partly by showing – with a revolving door of rap collaborators, most prominently Ja Rule – but also by telling. A lot of telling. Rule’s guest spot was on a remix of the bluntly titled “I’m Real” (”The game done chose me”, offers Lopez), and the theme reached its peak on the much-derided “Jenny From The Block” – the very definition of protesting too much. Being real? “To me it’s like breathing”, J-Lo trills, while around her hip-hop crew The LOX rap their career into the ground.
So “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” doesn’t just dive into R&B’s ongoing debate on romance and wealth, it’s an instalment in Lopez’ didactic campaign to prove how down-to-earth she is. It sets out its pitch as a kind of opposite to “No Scrubs” – that single flintily diagnosed deadbeat men as a drag on women’s chances of bettering themselves, but J-Lo waves such concerns away: it’s the heart that counts. (The press assumed she was having a dig at P. Diddy, her ex.) It’s a more generous sentiment, you might say, but an easier one too. And this is the strange flipside of J-Lo’s obsession with her own authenticity: the actual records she was making are all rather good, but not because of their street credentials. Instead their quality is down to her flexibility, a drive to bring in the crowds no matter what she’s doing. “Jenny From The Block”, for instance, succeeds because it backs up ridiculous lyrics not with grimy, ground-level beats but with a super-infectious flute sample.
And “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” is just as splashy and eager to please, a blustering take on the Destiny’s Child sound of 1999, fake harpsichord runs all over the place and Lopez adopting the conspiratorial, you-won’t-believe-this tone of “Bills Bills Bills” et al on the verses to build some tension. Never mind that it doesn’t fit the theme, it turns a lyrically somewhat pat song into one with more dramatic kick. And if that fails, there’s some crashing Cheiron-esque boom-beats at the start, and a parping synth-brass breakdown: everywhere you listen, this record is doing its best to grab you. It’s the paradox of J-Lo: her records act out a struggle between insecurity over her realness, and a will to adapt and entertain. Luckily for us, the latter mostly wins.