LOS ANGELES – In the course of one recent week, Jennifer Lopez was honored with a Billboard Icon Award, her single “First Love” became the most-added song on pop radio, she played to a sold-out crowd in Anaheim, California, and she wrapped another season as an “American Idol” judge.
In other words, it was business as usual for the multiplatinum singer known as J.Lo, who has multiple films and a TV series in the works, fragrances, countless endorsement deals, a TV and film production company and part ownership in a cable network. It’s an insane juggling act that makes multitasker Jay Z look like a slacker.
“I think because I do a lot of different things, I don’t get credit for being great at one thing like some people are,” Lopez, 44, said of her mixed-medium career. “Somebody once told me, ‘One of the best things is when people underestimate you, because then you can always surprise them.’ ”
And that she’s done. After a couple bumpy years in the late aughts that saw her stock in music and films fall, Lopez tried her hand as an “Idol” judge. The payoff was big. Her comeback album, 2011’s “Love?,” had a top 5 debut (a feat she hadn’t done since 2005); its lead single, “On the Floor,” was her highest debut, and the video became one of the most-watched.
“A.K.A.,” her follow-up album that came out Tuesday, is what Lopez wants to talk about now. “It’s very surreal. You feel like you started yesterday. Believe it or not, (the time) just goes,” she said, snapping her fingers for emphasis from inside the dressing room of a West Hollywood sound stage.
Like previous efforts, the new album shows Lopez’s wide-ranging tastes, but “A.K.A.” also showcases a singer better adept at balancing her pop and hip-hop roots. She zips from the dancey title track to the breezy electro-pop of the Max Martin-produced “First Love” to sticky hip-hop offerings such as “Acting Like That” and “I Luh Ya Papi” to torch ballads.
She is large, she contains multitudes: “I did a couple of dance records and people want me to do a dance album. Or they think I should go back to being ‘Jenny From the Block,’ ” she laughs. “I am dance, I am pop, I am R&B, I am hip-hop, I am Latin, I am ‘Jenny From the Block.’ But I am also ‘Jenny From Rodeo Drive.’ It was about embracing all those things musically, everything about me emotionally, and putting that into lyrics and sound for this album.”
Lounging barefoot in a leather armchair, the singer-actress-dancer and mom looked relaxed despite her whirlwind schedule and a brewing controversy over the FIFA-commissioned World Cup anthem “We Are One (Ole Ola).” It was recorded largely in English and Spanish with Cuban-American rapper Pitbull and Brazilian pop star Claudia Leitte (with hardly any Portuguese for a song touting the Brazil-hosted matches, thus part of the outcry from Brazilians who felt the Bronx-born Puerto Rican Lopez and Pitbull were unfit).
If Lopez is stressed out by any of this, she doesn’t let it show. She looks as radiant and warm as she does in that judge’s chair – and makes eating pizza look almost glamorous. She says, through bites, that she’ll be in New York the next day for a promo tour including a homecoming concert (playing to 20,000 fans in the Bronx) and a set for “Good Morning America’s” annual concert series.
Fifteen years after launching her music career, Lopez has sold more than 80 million records globally and is still the only performer to have a No. 1 album and film the same week. “A.K.A.” is her first offering on Capitol Records after years of label shifts (Lopez departed Island Def Jam after “Love?”; before that, she parted ways with Sony/Epic).
The new album also comes at a time when Lopez is yet again the subject of tabloid headlines.
Recent criticism about the World Cup anthem was exacerbated by reports that she had abruptly pulled out of the opening ceremony days before the June 12 kick-off in Sao Paulo (reps for the singer called the cancellation reports “premature” and said the singer was set to appear).
Two years ago, the singer went through a highly publicized divorce from singer Marc Anthony. And reports of her split with Casper Smart, her choreographer boyfriend of over two years (he was once her backup dancer), are currently dominating tabloid sites. Smart was present during the interview, sweetly kissing Lopez and bringing her food before driving her to the airport.
Love and all its splendor – and peril – is a major lyrical touchstone on Lopez’s new album. “I’m so done with pleasing you / I’m so over needing you / All this space just gave me room so I could fly,” she sings on “So Good.”
In conversation, she’s also forthcoming about the subject.
“These last four years, I felt like I really had to look at myself. One of the things I realized was I had to love myself a little bit more,” said Lopez, who lives in Los Angeles. “That was a huge lesson for me. My kids (she and Anthony had twins in 2008) taught me that. They teach you a sort of unconditional kind of love and what it should feel like. It’s very selfless and pure.
“The breakup (of her marriage) just made me go make some real realizations about myself. When you get to the point of loving yourself … you start going, ‘OK, well, who am I?’ Myself happens to be many things. Do I love all those parts? The good parts, the messy parts. And when I said that, so many things happened for this album.”
Though the album’s subject matter is familiar territory for Lopez, the purpose and confidence in which she sings are new. Lopez, who has long been criticized for her voice, finally gained confidence in her vocal ability – something she credits Anthony with. “He’s such a powerful vocalist, and he always believed in me as a vocalist and he knew it was a confidence thing for me,” she says. “While we were married, he really helped me with that. And once I toured for the first time, I realized I was a much stronger vocalist than I gave myself credit for. (After the tour) I just couldn’t wait to get into the studio. There was nothing to be afraid of. I had to really push myself.”
She recruited R&B/hip-hop heavyweights to contribute. T.I., Nas, Rick Ross, French Montana, Iggy Azalea and frequent collaborator Pitbull all appear; Chris Brown penned a handful of songs; producers Detail (Beyonce, Nicki Minaj), Harmony Samuels (Fantasia, Ariana Grande) and RoccStar (Brown) lent beats. The album also reunited her with longtime producer Cory Rooney, who helmed her earlier releases.
But do audiences still care?
The album’s lead single, the sexy “I Luh Ya Papi,” logged the singer another dance hit, while its recently released follow-up, “First Love,” was the most-added song on radio after she performed it on the “Idol” finale and at the Billboard Music Awards in May.