The buzz swirling around "Como Ama Una Mujer" ("How a Woman Loves") is that it's Jennifer Lopez's first album sung entirely in Spanish. Big deal. She's always been singing en español, starting with "No Me Ames," the salsa hit with Marc Anthony (then just a twinkle in her mascaraed eye) from her 1999 debut, "On the 6."
What's remarkable about "Como Ama Una Mujer," which is released today, is how willfully out of synch it is with the latest trends in Latin pop music. There are none of the faux-R&B beats you'd hear on an RBD album, no ramped-up guitars suited for Juanes, and no remixed dance anthems tacked onto the end for maximum club rotation. Most notably, there's not a hint of the hip-hop that has propelled much of Lopez's music. (Sorry, no Ja Rule cameos, either.)
The big question is: Why now? There's not exactly a demand from Top 40 radio for the kind of sentimental music on "Como Ama Una Mujer." And unlike Latin pop stars such as Thalía and Paulina Rubio, who retreated to their Spanish-language roots after lackluster crossover success, Lopez has always had a multidemographic following. Maybe this is her attempt to honor her Puerto Rican heritage or, if you're more cynical, another way to capitalize on the Latin-pop market.
It has serious potential to do that, too. "Como Ama Una Mujer," in spite of its soft-focus romantic leanings, is a sincere album, organic in its instrumentation and introspective in its lyrics. Estefano's streamlined production keeps the bombast surprisingly in check for what is surely Lopez's most tasteful and reserved album yet. She's still Jenny from the block, only now the block has moved out of the gritty Bronx onto a quiet side street in the 'burbs.
The J.Lo on display here is not angling for urban pop hits so much as she's turning inward with unabashed romance. Whether that's good news or bad will depend on one key question: How do you feel about Luis Miguel's brand of romantic pop? He's Mexico's reigning king of saccharine love songs, whose album covers inevitably feature him with slicked-back hair, in a tuxedo and a perma-half-smile.
Lopez is far too savvy to make a straight ballads album, though. Her idea of a love song is more classic, opting for string sections over canned synthesizers. Yes, that's a real-life piano opening the title track, with a minor-chord progression that sounds oddly similar to Randy Newman's "In Germany Before the War." A delicate ballad with a simmering introduction, it opens wide to an over-the-top chorus that would sound best sung in unison by an arena of swaying fans, illuminated cellphones hoisted.
Meanwhile, "Por Que Te Marchas" ("Why You Leave") simmers until the refrain kicks in with swelling strings and Lopez's vocals, which sound like they're lifted from an "American Idol" audition. Lopez isn't known for understatement, but you wish she had had the courage to leave this one half-baked. That approach works perfectly on "Sola" ("Alone"), which slinks along with ambient electronica.
"Qué Hiciste" ("What You Did") is a detour on an otherwise lush, quiet album. Amid all the heartache, it's a diva-mode kiss-off of a lover who unraveled her happy home: "Se te olvidó que era el amor lo que importaba/ Y con tus manos derrumbaste nuestra casa" ("You forgot that it was love that mattered/ And with your hands you tore down our home"). But that's about all the trash-talking Lopez wants to do. "Me Haces Falta" ("I Miss You") hinges on one of this year's most self-loathing choruses: "Tú me haces falta/ Sí, me arrepiento/ Me odio/ Estoy desesperada" ("I miss you/ Yes, I repent/ I hate myself/ I'm desperate"). The album wraps up with "Adiós," a pretty ballad recorded live in front of an audience that immediately erupts into a sing-along. No doubt cellphones were hoisted and voices mixed in unison. Just as they should be.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.