The Anniversary

J.Lo Turns 20

In 2001, Jennifer Lopez became the only woman to simultaneously claim the #1 album and movie in America. She also found herself at the center of multiple controversies related to signature song "I'm Real."

While the majority of the world was hysterically rushing to find the nearest bunker to survive from technology hunger games, Jennifer Lopez seemed to be unfazed by the Y2K mania. Following her breakthrough role as a beloved pop star in 1997’s Selena, she continued the momentum by becoming one herself with debut album On The 6. Released in 1999, the record generated a #1 single (“If You Had My Love”), a dancefloor anthem (“Waiting For Tonight”), and three Grammy nominations.

Lopez’s transition from movies to music was impressively seamless, and it was clear that she wanted the best of both worlds. So after the world survived Y2K, the artist celebrated in a blockbuster way. In 2001, Lopez dropped her follow-up album J.Lo, which turns 20 on 1/23. That same month, she also became The Romantic Comedy Queen with the release of The Wedding Planner. J.Lo debuted atop the Billboard 200 chart the same week as the film — which co-starred The Romantic Comedy King Matthew McConaughey — opened at #1 at the box office. Lopez became the first (and still the only) woman to simultaneously score a #1 album and film.

Lopez’s success was rooted in characteristics that still earn her admiration today: the acknowledgment of her growing diva status, humility rooted in her South Bronx upbringing, and a passion for helping other Latinas get more opportunities. She balances all three on J.Lo. It’s objectively successful through an industry lens — her best-selling album to date, with a quadruple Platinum certification — and remains a significant document of Lopez at the peak of her celebrity. Yet the album has a handful of cracks that reveal her flaws.

J.Lo kicks off with “Love Don’t Cost A Thing,” one of the strongest album openers of the early ’00s. Lopez is unimpressed by the material things her lover tries to flaunt: credit cards, Benzes, blinging Rolexes. At that point in her career, she could likely buy all of these 10 times over. “If I wanna floss, I got my own,” she sings. A glance at the cover makes that as clear as the glittery diamonds that make up the “J.Lo” icon. This “come as you are” approach continues in the video, which features Lopez frolicking along a Miami beach while baring a minimally-done face, sea salt-whipped tresses, and that famous body. “Love Don’t Cost A Thing” is catchy as all hell: a 6th-grade me couldn’t get enough of that buzzing chorus, so much so that I performed it for my elementary school’s talent show. (It was between that and Ashanti’s “Baby,” an ironic decision that we’ll dive into a little later.)

“Play,” the album’s second single, is one of Lopez’s most underrated. The DJ is at her behest as she commands him to blast her favorite song. It’s a slick club night bottled in just over three minutes. As the pandemic continues, “Play” has become an escape to a fantasy we can no longer safely enjoy in the real world. “Walking On Sunshine” (no ties to Katrina And The Waves’ 1985 hit) is another overlooked deep cut. As on “Waiting For Tonight,” Lopez throws herself onto the dancefloor with a synthy beat that isn’t too far off from what Madonna mastered on Music just the year before.

J.Lo fuses mainstream pop and homegrown Boricua, and the latter is where Lopez shines on the album. The sunny “Ain’t It Funny” was originally meant to appear in The Wedding Planner, yet director Adam Shankman ultimately deemed it too Latin for the film. Minority-based injustices aside, the track is near-flawless and would’ve been perfect if it included a Ricky Martin feature and a proper bridge. The Latin celebration continues with “Cariño” (affectionally translated to “darling” in English). It’s a salsa party built around Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s 1976 song “Sofrito” and topped off with a live horn section.

Lopez is more convincing when she plays up her sensuality with Latin-inspired music, like with the album’s “Dame (Touch Me)” featuring Puerto Rican singer Chayanne. But those aforementioned cracks appear when it isn’t masked in Spanish. “Secretly” is a failed attempt at recreating the erotica of Janet Jackson’s janet. and The Velvet Rope. “Come Over” is a cringe bedroom ballad, despite efforts made by the song’s creators: Diddy (who was by then Lopez’s ex-flame following a highly publicized romance) and R&B crooner Mario Winans. “To you, I’ll do very erotic things,” Lopez sings with mousey uncertainty. “I want to make love, babe, very slowly.”

Nevertheless, J.Lo saves itself with a closer that doubles as Lopez’s signature song: the Murder Inc. remix of the album’s second track, “I’m Real.” Featuring Ja Rule, it elevates the original to a rap/R&B collaboration blueprint. It was a pop culture moment, from controlling the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for five non-consecutive weeks to the pink Juicy Couture tracksuit Lopez rocked in the video. Despite its success, the “I’m Real” remix was met with not one, but three controversies that have scarred the song with infamy.

If you listen closely to the chorus, that’s not just Lopez singing. Ashanti, who was still a rising singer at the time before her 2002 self-titled breakthrough, provided background vocals without credit. It’s not a secret that Lopez doesn’t have the strongest vocals, and she’s obviously had assistance since the beginning of her career. Along with “I’m Real,” Ashanti co-wrote the 2002 remix of “Ain’t It Funny” and recorded the demo. Her vocals remained on the chorus, and she even appears in the video. J. Lo’s “Play” also fell victim to this: Christina Milian (who got her start by guesting on Ja Rule’s “Between Me And You” in 2000) co-wrote the song. Her vocals make up the entire chorus. In an interesting twist, Milian later made her film debut in 2003’s Love Don’t Cost A Thing, named after Lopez’s hit. Reference and demo tracks are standard in pop music; among many other examples, Sia’s “Titanium” demo for David Guetta became the mastered version and Keri Hilson’s background vocals are left in the mix on Britney Spears’ “Break The Ice.” But there’s a stark difference when the entire chorus is lifted without change.

The controversy surrounding “I’m Real” continued with Lopez’s use of the n-word. Frequent collaborator Cory Rooney mentioned the singer was not appealing to “urban” radio stations as she still catered to pop. With the approval of Tommy Mottola, then Sony Music Entertainment’s chairman/CEO and Mariah Carey’s ex-husband (this will be relevant in a few more sentences), Lopez got pushed into the urban market. Hence the rapper-heavy remixes of “I’m Real,” “Ain’t It Funny,” and “I’m Gonna Be Alright” (which later pissed off 50 Cent when he was traded for Nas). This post-Diddy transition led to the team-up with Ja Rule, who wrote this jarring lyric for Lopez: “Now people screaming what the deal with you and so and so/ I tell them n—-s mind their business, but they don’t hear me, though.”

Lopez may be a Latina, but her roots trace back to Europe, not to indigenous or Afro-Caribbean people. So the singer didn’t have a right to the word. Despite the outrage, Rule defended Lopez. Lopez herself commented in 2001: “For anyone to think or suggest that I’m racist is really absurd and hateful to me. The use of the word in the song… it was actually written by Ja Rule [and] it was not meant to be hurtful to anybody.”

The layers of cultural appropriation were later overshadowed by a revelation about Lopez’s longstanding feud with Mariah Carey, which birthed the infamous “I Don’t Know Her” meme. Carey’s memoir The Meaning Of Mariah Carey discusses the backlash that befell 2001’s Glitter and how former husband Mottola allegedly blackmailed her. “Loverboy,” found on the film’s soundtrack, originally included a sample of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1978 hit “Firecracker.” Carey claims Mottola sabotaged her by giving the sample to Lopez instead, which was used in the original version of “I’m Real.” Carey later settled for Cameo’s “Candy” for the final version of “Loverboy.”

“I feel like I haven’t even started yet,” Lopez told Rolling Stone a month following J.Lo‘s release. “I’m looking forward to the ninth album, the thirtieth movie. I want to write more songs, tour, find the right roles, have my own family. That’s why I have so much energy. I know what lies ahead.” Twenty years later, she’s made it happen: Lopez has teased a ninth album with the release of new single “In The Morning” and has 35 feature film credits (her latest romcom Marry Me will premiere in May).

Lopez has become more than just a triple-threat entertainer, tacking on mother, producer and businesswoman (she recently launched a skincare line) to her resumé. Vocal mishaps aside, her ear for hits and natural charisma transformed her into a vessel for success. And it all traces back to jumping over the sophomore slump with J.Lo. The album cemented her signature yin and yang: Jenny From the Block and J. Lo The Brand.

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