In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
One night in September of 1991, Keenan Ivory Wayans introduced the world to both Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Lopez. Those two introductions happened in the span of about 40 seconds. A few new talents had just arrived on In Living Color, the revolutionary Fox sketch-comedy show that was just starting its third season. The show had a few new cast members, like Keenan’s baby brother Shawn, formerly the show’s DJ, and the comedian Steve Park. At the time, Foxx, who Keenan called a “country bumpkin,” was a lowly sketch comic, while Lopez was the latest addition to the Fly Girls, the show’s troupe of dancers. The future had a lot of things in store for those two new faces.
(Jamie Foxx’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2009 T-Pain collab “Blame It,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8. As a guest artist, Foxx will be in this column a couple of times, including once for the song that rhymes “Jennifer Lopez” with “four kids” and “Showbiz.”)
Since the early days of pop music, plenty of people have freely crossed between the worlds of stage and screen, balancing careers as singers and actors. Frank Sinatra won an Oscar for his acting. So did Cher. Elvis Presley spent most of the ’60s as a movie star. John Travolta has been in this column as a singer. But both Jennifer Lopez and Jamie Foxx would become a whole new kind of multi-hyphenate megastar — the kind that does basically everything, that treats pop stardom as something like a brand extension. Within eight years of that In Living Color introduction, Jennifer Lopez would become one of the most famous women on the planet, and her debut single would spend five weeks at #1.
Jennifer Lopez comes from a strict Catholic family in the Bronx’s Castle Hill neighborhood. (At the time of J.Lo’s birth, Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525” was the #1 song in America.) Lopez’s parents, both born in Puerto Rico, had spent most of their lives in the continental US. Her father was a computer programmer, and her mother was a homemaker who eventually became a kindergarten teacher. Jennifer went to Catholic school, where she acted in musicals and played a lot of sports. She started taking dance lessons when she was very young, and she eventually dropped out of college after a single semester to devote herself full-time to dance. Her mother, furious at her decision, kicked Jennifer out of the family apartment.
Lopez’s entertainment career started off small. She got a gig as a singer in a musical revue that toured Europe, but she was the only person in the revue who never got a solo. She played a few roles in regional musical productions. In 1990, she made her TV debut on a Yo! MTV Raps episode where MC Hammer visited a dance studio. All she did on the show was stand next to Hammer and stretch. She still made an impression. (MC Hammer’s highest-charting single, 1990’s “Pray,” peaked at #2. It’s a 5.)
In the very early ’90s, Jennifer Lopez did background-dancer duty for a New Kids On The Block performance at the American Music Awards, and she also danced in videos for Doug E. Fresh, EPMD, and Samantha Fox. (Puff Daddy, Lopez’s future boyfriend and collaborator, was also a dancer in that Doug E. Fresh clip.) Rosie Perez, arguably the proto-J.Lo, was the choreographer for the Fly Girls, and she noticed Lopez when Lopez auditioned for the show. On In Living Color, Lopez spent a year as a Fly Girl, leaving at the end of the show’s third season. Soon afterwards, she was a dancer in Janet Jackson’s video for her chart-topper “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Lopez was supposed to tour with Jackson as a backup dancer, too, but she backed out of that gig. She wanted to try acting instead.
As a teenager in New York, Jennifer Lopez had been cast in a small role as a teenager in a group home in the 1987 movie My Little Girl. She’d acted alongside James Earl Jones, and she wanted to do more of that. It can’t be easy to move from sketch-comedy dancing girl to serious actor, but it probably helps if you’re one of the most beautiful people on the planet. Lopez landed a recurring role on the CBS drama Second Chances and then became part of the regular cast of its short-lived spinoff Hotel Malibu. In 1995, she acted in the indie drama My Family and then got a chance to break out as the third part of a Wesley Snipes/Woody Harrelson love triangle in the buddy flick Money Train.
For the first few years of her acting career, Jennifer Lopez mostly played supporting roles, but she always popped — partly because of her warm, natural charisma and partly because she was always way, way hotter than everyone else onscreen. I can remember going to see U-Turn, the not-good 1997 Oliver Stone neo-noir, and holding my breath whenever Lopez was onscreen. It’s a ridiculous movie. Lopez plays a Native American femme fatale who’s married to Nick Nolte, and you can probably see at least a couple of things wrong with that sentence alone. But she just melted my brain. It was ridiculous. A year after that, Lopez starred alongside George Clooney in Steven Soderberg’s Elmore Leonard adaptation Out Of Sight. It’s easily one of the most rewatchable movies of the entire 1990s, and she’s absolutely perfect in it.
Before U-Turn and Out Of Sight, though, Jennifer Lopez had her first true leading role, and her experience in that film made her a movie star and a pop star. In 1997, Lopez played the Tejano star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in the biopic Selena. This was not an easy gig. In her short career, the Texan-born Selena, who’d learned to speak Spanish by singing in Spanish, had become a beloved figure in Mexican-American culture. Selena was on the verge of a global breakthrough when she was shot dead by the president of her fan club at the age of 23. (Selena’s only Hot 100 hit, the English-language single “Dreaming Of You,” peaked at #22 in 1995, after Selena’s murder.)
Selena came out when Selena’s loss was still a fresh wound. Jennifer Lopez didn’t look that much like Selena, and she was actually a couple of years older than the singer. Lopez was also a Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx, not a Mexican-American woman from Texas, so that casting was not without controversy. But Lopez is amazing in Selena, and the film absolutely hinges on her performance. Some of the movie’s best moments work as little love letters to the connection between pop star and audience. The movie uses Selena’s vocals, not Lopez’s, but Lopez would still sing in all of her concert scenes. She loved the experience. After shooting the scene where Selena plays a concert at the Houston Astrodome, Lopez came offstage and told Abraham Quintanilla, Jr., Selena’s father, that she wanted to try doing this herself.
After playing Selena, Jennifer Lopez made moves so that she could have that feeling for herself. She told the LA Times, “When I did Selena, it all came back again, having that interaction with the fans and the public, which you don’t get in movies. I missed that very much.” Lopez hired Benny Medina, the high-powered music exec who’d been the inspiration for The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, as her manager, and she recorded a demo of a Spanish-language song called “Vivir Sin Ti.” Sony Music boss Tommy Mottola had seen Lopez in Selena, and he was determined to sign her. He was just as determined that she should sing in English.
Mottola set up a meeting with Lopez, and he made sure that a whole lot of big-deal songwriters and producers were in that meeting: Babyface, Rodney Jerkins, Walter Afanasieff, Cory Rooney. Lopez signed on, and they got to work on her debut album On The 6, named for the subway line that Lopez used to ride from the Bronx to Manhattan. Mottola made Lopez an immediate priority, and the album’s credits are full of big names: Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the Trackmasters, Lopez’s new boyfriend Puff Daddy. Big Pun and Fat Joe rapped on one song. On another, Lopez sang a duet with Marc Anthony, a man who she would later marry and then divorce. (Marc Anthony’s highest-charting single, 2000’s “You Sang To Me,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)
Jennifer Lopez’s red-carpet treatment at Sony was a little unconventional, since Lopez wasn’t exactly a trained singer. She’d been in musicals, and she’d flirted with making records earlier in her career. There’d been some talk of turning the Fly Girls into a girl group, and Lopez briefly had an early-’90s deal at Giant Records that went nowhere. But Lopez was now working with some of the biggest names in pop and R&B, and she was plainly not an R&B singer. In some ways, you can hear On The 6 as an expensive experiment in how to hide a star’s vocal deficiencies while still showcasing her whole vibe.
“If You Had My Love,” the opening track and first single from On The 6, is a fascinating little hall of mirrors. A lot of work clearly went into the song. Rodney Jerkins, coming off of the blockbuster success of Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine,” produced the track, and it shows all of his tricks at work. Before Lopez’s voice even shows up, the music dazzles — a prim little harpsichord line, dramatic strings busily sawing out a complex arrangement, stuttering bass-pops, stumbling drum-patterns. Lopez happened to arrive at music in a moment when producers like Jerkins were constructing these hallucinatory futuristic tracks that could’ve turned an automated voice program into a star. This was good timing on her part.
Rodney Jerkins didn’t have a hand in writing “If You Had My Love,” but plenty of his collaborators did, including his brother Fred Jerkins III. “The Boy Is Mine” co-writer LaShawn Daniels also had a hand in “If You Had My Love,” and Lopez got a songwriting credit herself. The main songwriter on most of On The 6 was “If You Had My Love” co-writer Cory Rooney, a New York native whose parents had both been in the early-’60s R&B group the Exciters. (The Exciters recorded the original version of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” which became a #1 hit for Manfred Mann in 1964. The Exciters’ highest-charting single, 1962’s “Tell Him,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Cory Rooney had gotten his start at Uptown Records. Working with the former Fat Boys member Prince Markie Dee, Rooney had written and produced tracks like Mary J. Blige’s 1992 hit “Real Love,” which peaked at #7. (It’s a 10. Mary J. Blige will eventually appear in this column.)
In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Cory Rooney says that he coached Jennifer Lopez not to overthink her singing: “I would always tell her that this is no different from her acting job. Forget technique. Just close your eyes and believe in every word you’re singing. Don’t worry about where you’re standing or anything like that as far as positioning on the mic because it’s the job of the engineer to capture your voice. Just be you.” Good advice! There are moments on “If You Had My Love” where Lopez reaches for R&B runs, and those moments don’t work; her voice simply isn’t up to Mariah Carey-style theatrics. But she has presence, and presence goes a long way.
As written, “If You Have My Love” is a kind of challenge. Lopez’s narrator is starting off a relationship with somebody new, and she gives this person a warning, or maybe an ultimatum. If she’s going to jump into this thing, she wants to be perfectly sure that her partner won’t cheat on her or disappear. Singing a song like that, Lopez has to be both tough and seductive, and that’s exactly her screen persona. That wasn’t a problem. The backup singers on “If You Had My Love” handle a lot of the melody, but Lopez has the attitude to pull the whole thing off.
I wish the song was better. The production is state-of-the-art late-’90s R&B flutter-gleam, and it does a pretty good job presenting Jennifer Lopez as a credible singer. The subject matter hits that pop-music sweet spot where it’s vulnerable and romantic and no-nonsense in that aspirational way. The central hook is strong enough to get stuck in your head. But the song is also overly repetitive and a little too slow. It’s one of those tracks where there’s no bridge, so we just get the chorus repeated a couple more times. In the video, the song skids to a halt for a Latin-house dance-party interlude, and that part is lively enough that I would always feel a serious energy dropoff when the main track came back. “If You Had My Love” is not a brilliant song, but it’s solid. It works in all the ways that it needed to work.
Puff Daddy supposedly came up with the idea for the “If You Had My Love” video, and Bad Boy favorite Paul Hunter directed it. The clip offers a great little time-capsule image of the circa-Y2K internet, with future CSI: Miami star Adam Rodriguez sitting down at a computer to ogle Jennifer Lopez while she’s dancing around in sweatpants. As the clip progresses, various different people tune in to watch Lopez, an early preview of the social-media surveillance state. To some of them, like the two mechanics who ignore the car bursting into flames behind them, Lopez is an object of lust. To others, like the little girl who dances along, Lopez is some kind of role model. There’s also a moment where someone throws an iMac in a swimming pool? I don’t know what’s going on there, but this seems like a poor decision. If you got more than four drops of water on one of those late-’90s computers, it would instantly launch itself into God’s loving arms.
Naturally, the “If You Had My Love Video” was all over MTV for months. They would’ve been absolute chumps not to put a Jennifer Lopez music video into heavy rotation. Lopez didn’t appear in any movies in 1999, and she put all her energy into promoting On The 6, doing things like visiting Oprah with her labelmate Ricky Martin to discuss the hyped-up Latin pop boom. (Lopez and Martin are both of Puerto Rican descent, and they both recorded for the same label, but they didn’t have anything in common, musically or otherwise, beyond that.) In the press, Lopez’s camp insisted that a successful record would make her a bigger movie star, and they were right. The On The 6 press cycle made Lopez hugely all-around famous in ways that went beyond her movie career. A whole lot of the press coverage seemed to revolve around Lopez’s ass, as if the world had never seen a beautiful woman who wasn’t toothpick-skinny. It was weird.
As an album, On The 6 was a hit but not a blockbuster. The LP eventually went triple platinum, and it sent one more single, the extremely New York club jam “Waiting For Tonight,” into the top 10. (“Waiting For Tonight” peaked at #8. It’s a 7.) During the On The 6 album cycle, Lopez’s media takeover hit its first real speedbump.
One night in late December of 1999, Lopez was at Club New York with her boyfriend Puff Daddy and his extended crew, and Puff got into a fight with a guy named Scar. After someone threw a stack of cash at someone else, guns came out, and three people were hit and injured. A woman got shot in the face, but she survived. Puff and Lopez fled the scene, but when their car was pulled over, police found a stolen handgun and arrested both of them. Lopez spent the night in jail, reportedly handcuffed to a bench and sobbing uncontrollably, before police dropped charges against her. The New York press made it seem like Lopez was the real victim of the whole situation.
Puff Daddy was eventually acquitted of the charges against him, but Shyne, the Bad Boy rapper whose album release they were at the club to celebrate, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempted murder, assault, and reckless endangerment. He served nine before being deported to Belize, converting to Judaism, and eventually winning a spot in Belize’s House Of Representatives. Crazy life. (Shyne’s highest-charting single, the extremely hard 2000 Barrington Levy collab “Bad Boyz,” peaked at #57.) Lopez and Puff stayed together for a couple of months, but by the time Lopez wore an extremely memorable dress to the 2000 Grammys, she was single.
“If You Had My Love” was the song that established that Jennifer Lopez could be a pop star, and Jennifer Lopez’s pop-star status showed that general celebrity could be a whole lot more important to pop-stardom than straight-up vocal ability. Lopez wasn’t the first to prove that, and she wouldn’t be the last, but she may have been the most successful. The experiment worked swimmingly; Jennifer Lopez became a full-on pop star. We’ll see her in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: T-Pain didn’t learn about Auto-Tune from Cher’s “Believe.” Instead, T-Pain, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, heard a split second of robotized zero-setting glitch-voice on Rodney Jerkins’ Dark Child remix of “If You Had My Love,” which sent him on a quest to figure out how that sound had been made. Here’s that remix:
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Drake using a sample of the “If You Had My Love” hook on his 2017 track “Teenage Fever”:
(“Teenage Fever” peaked at #22. Drake will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Melanie Martinez’s 2020 track “Brain & Heart,” which is built on a sample of “If You Had My Love”:
(Melanie Martinez’s highest-charting single is her cover of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” recorded live on The Voice in 2012. It peaked at #86.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Queens drill rapper Shawny Binladen using a decaying “If You Had My Love” sample on his 2021 track “Gave You My All”:
THE 10S: 702’s “Where My Girls At?,” an anthemic spaceship-rocker co-written and co-produced by Missy Elliott, peaked at #4 behind “If You Had My Love.” You must learn the rules: It’s a 10.
Meanwhile, The Backstreet Boys’ masterpiece, the mathematically perfect and lyrically inscrutable sparkle-pop hymn “I Want It That Way,” peaked at #6 behind “If You Had My Love,” becoming a victim of a chart system that still gave more weight to songs that were commercially available as singles. It’s your fire, the one desire, and it’s a 10.
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.