Jennifer Lopez has always protested a bit too much in her music.
When she declares, "I'm Real," it's time to start looking for the seams. When she reminds us she's still "Jenny from the Block," her doubts about all the rocks that she's got changing her must be getting serious. So when she names her new album "Brave," you have to wonder what she's afraid of.
No doubt tabloid watchers will guess that all these songs about happily-ever-after love and the glories of coupledom ("Heartbreaks are overrated; `Stay together,' that's the new trend," she sings in "Stay Together") mean there may be trouble with husband Marc Anthony. But that's too obvious a reading - Miss "Love Don't Cost a Thing" has always sung about the glories of true love.
What's probably more telling on "Brave" (Epic) is the music. As is the case with the rest of Lopez's public life these days, she is playing it safer than she once did.
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Gone are the edgy beats and the prominent rap cameos of her last album, 2005's "Rebirth," replaced by lots of radio-friendly dance pop and delicate ballads. Her streetwise, catch-phrase-creating lyrics have morphed into family-friendly anthems like "I Need Love," where she says she's "sick and tired of frontin'" and advocates less nightclubbing and more cuddling.
There's nothing wrong with any of that really. The first half of "Brave" works this new strategy so well it builds Lopez's best run of songs since 2001's "J.Lo" album. Despite its clunky lyrics, "Stay Together" is a sleek slice of throwback dance pop, complete with flute flourishes and loads of Latin percussion. "Hold It, Don't Drop It" elevates flecks of "Off the Wall"-era Michael Jackson, including the staccato horns and funky bass lines, into pure disco grandeur. And the first single "Do It Well" is a high-energy good time that blends the best bits of "Love Don't Cost a Thing" and "Waiting for Tonight."
It's head and shoulders above "Rebirth," but after a while, it gets to be a bit much. The second half of "Brave" plays a little too test-marketed, like one of those "all your favorites and no rap" radio stations. "I Need Love" isn't as crisp as the earlier songs. The ballad "Wrong When You're Gone" is a little too sappy. And "Be Mine" lopes lazily over what sounds like a sample from Smashmouth's "All Star."
Maybe it's because "Brave" is Lopez's second album of the year, following the spring's Spanish release "Como Ama Una Mujer," but the second half sounds like she ran out of time - or creative gas.
And the whole project has the feel of someone worried about reconnecting with a mainstream audience, desperately trying to give the people what she thinks they want, instead of offering up what she wants.
Lopez is a good enough actress to pass these songs off as genuine. But she performs so much better when she's not acting, when she's still "Jenny from the Block" sashaying across the stage, using her ambition and sass to drive her.
She walls a lot of that off on this album, making it not "Brave," as much as it is "Safe."
BRAVE. Jennifer Lopez plays to her strengths, mainstreams her sound and polishes her new image. Grade: B-minus.
LESS "KID," MORE ROCK. Um, when did Kid Rock become an adult contemporary artist? His new album "Rock N Roll Jesus" (Atlantic) is all about watering down Southern rock, sounding more like Bob Seger and trying to recapture the success of "Picture." For a guy who built his reputation as an outrageous rap-rocker, this is all passable, but tame, and, aside from the raucous "Sugar" and "Lowlife" and the nice-enough "New Orleans," pretty much unnecessary.
("Rock N Roll Jesus"; Grade: C)
ALSO IN STORES. Vanessa Carlton's piano-pop "Heroes & Thieves" (Murder Inc./Motown); Deborah Harry's gritty return to dance pop on "Necessary Evil" (Eleven Seven); Marc Cohn's comeback album "Join the Parade" (Decca); LeAnn Rimes' new country "Family" (Curb); Puddle of Mudd's hard-rock "Famous" (Geffen); She Wants Revenge's new-new-wave "This Is Forever" (Geffen); Josh Groban's Christmas album "Noel" (Warner Bros.); and greatest hits packages from Eric Clapton and Sara Evans.
SONG OF THE WEEK. What makes The Last Goodnight single "Pictures of You" (Virgin) interesting at the beginning is the way it sounds like a live band mash-up - the collision of Fall Out Boy-styled emo and a bit of jazzy-tinged piano pop. In the verses, singer Kurtis John sounds like he's ready to attack, his words moving a little faster and the delivery a little more intense than the piano tinkling would suggest. It gets sorted out in the conventional pop-rock, ready-for-"Brothers and Sisters"-inclusion chorus. Luckily, the off-kilter verses still keep things a bit edgy.