the complicated rise of j.lo
20 years after 'On the 6,' we reflect on the influential album and her journey to fame.
Jennifer Lopez during Jennifer Lopez's On the 6 CD Party at Float in New York City. Photo by Ke.Mazur/WireImage.
No one knew what to expect on the brink of the new millennium. The year 1999 was a significant moment in pop culture for multiple reasons — the internet was still unknown territory, style was transitioning from the decade’s signature grunge style into the metallic, monochrome metamorphosis of the 2000s, and music was entering what’s now defined as “the Latin explosion” with artists like Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and of course, Jennifer Lopez topping the Billboard charts.
While artists like Martin and Anthony continued to chart and remain bankable musicians worldwide and through respective Latinx markets, Jennifer Lopez’s initial debut success as a musical artist was unheard of — not only as just a female artist, but as a Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx as well. Post Selena the biographical film based on the life of Mexican-American singer Selena Quintanilla that gave Lopez her first break as an actress and performer, no one knew what to expect when it was announced she would be recording her own debut album — she was lip syncing to Quintanilla’s vocals throughout the entirety of the film after all. When her first single “If You Had My Love” was released however, it was the first debut single from a female artist to hit number one since Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time."
“There was an appetite for English-language music with a Latin pop feel [at the time],” says journalist and music critic Gary Suarez. “But 1999 was also a formative period for American women in pop. It's when we got Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera too, and Lopez was undeniably part of that wave too. It was great to see a Latina making hits who wasn't trying to hide her heritage in the process.”
The full album On The 6, went on to become a critical and chart success — debuting within the Top 10 on the Billboard charts it’s first week and providing a string of hits for Lopez including “Feelin’ So Good,” “Let’s Get Loud” and the eventual New Year’s Eve essential, “Waiting For Tonight.” The record is arguably, 20 years later, Lopez’s best and most authentic full length work, known decades later as a masterfully produced and effortless blend of pop, R&B and what Lopez herself dubbed “Latin Soul.” On a surface level, the record was a genuine musical representation for Lopez who from the jump proudly repped her Nuyorican Bronx upbringing. The album from track to track sounds like the cultural melting pot that is the Bronx — where communities of the Latin Caribbean and African Diaspora meet the city’s overarching love of hip-hop. In recent years however, thanks to Twitter threads and album liner notes, many argue that Lopez’s initial success as a pop artist is due to the erased work of the various Black artists who originally penned her biggest hits.
During an interview with NPR, musician Chante Moore detailed how Rodney Jerkins wrote the song “If I Gave Love” for her album — and once Sean “Diddy” Combs (Lopez’s boyfriend at the time and co-producer on the album) got wind of the track, demanded that Jerkins produce an identical track for Jennifer. It was a similar managerial style that record executive and music industry tyrant Tommy Mottola supposedly followed when it came to Lopez as well. Coming off the heels of his divorce and business breakup from his greatest musical discovery, Mariah Carey, Mottola saw Lopez as an opportunity to mimic the direction he knew Carey’s musical catalogue was taking — an infectious blend of pop and hip-hop that radio stations quickly craved. Lopez didn’t have Carey’s vocal range, clearly, but where she lacked in vocals she made up for in unparalleled dedication to her performing endurance.
As years went on, Lopez’s producers wouldn’t even hide hints to the origins of Jennifer’s tracks. On “Play,” the second single from Lopez’s sophomore record J.Lo, the track’s co-writer’s voice is evident within the song’s chorus and background vocals. Via a modern day listen, there’s no denying it’s Christina Milian’s voice. Similarly, R&B artist Ashanti penned and sang the initial demo for the “Ain’t It Funny” Remix with Ja Rule — and even appeared in the accompanying music video. She’s expressed in the past that as much as she wanted to keep certain songs (like “I’m Real” also with Ja Rule) for herself, she knew as a then unsigned artist and burgeoning songwriter that the song was better off given to Lopez. Usher also famously demanded publishing credit and a cut of royalties when “Get Right,” a rejected demo of his that Lopez’s producers picked up, became another hit.
Between her high energy performances combined with her Hollywood friendly, racially ambiguous looks and hand selected singles by the music industry’s most powerful figures — failure simply wasn’t an option when it came to Lopez’s rollout as an artist and eventual industry powerhouse. Almost two decades into her career, Lopez still ranked 6th on Forbe’s list of music’s highest earning women, to date has sold 80 million records worldwide and thanks to her transformation into a bonafide business woman via her countless fashion and beauty ventures, has a net worth of $400 million.
When it comes to debating the authenticity of Lopez’s career in 2019, it’s hard whether to point fingers at Lopez or the formative team that surrounded her 20 years ago. When analyzing her career from 1999 to now, her career moves and musical catalogue mirror the constant changes and trends that the music industry followed. The latter half of Lopez’s career, like with her comeback hit “On The Floor,” took more of a techno, club hit route when electronic dance music was at its cultural peak. Her more recent singles like “El Anillo” with Ozuna and “Te Guste” with Bad Bunny take full advantage of recent radio love of Spanish trap and Reggaeton inspired beats.
“I think holding Lopez accountable for the craven practices and cutthroat nature of the music business doesn't feel right. The songs off On The 6 wouldn't necessarily have worked the same or did the same numbers coming from a different artist packaged in a different way,” said Suarez. “Being a Latina from the Bronx gave her credibility as well as cover. You couldn't reasonably lambast her for doing disco one minute, Bad Boy style hip-hop the next, and then a ballad right after that. These were all influences and sounds that those of us who grew up in NYC or lived there at the time had exposure to. It would've been downright weird if she had avoided urban and Latin styles at that stage.”
One can argue as well, that Lopez’s Puerto Rican heritage and Bronx upbringing justifies her adjacency to hip-hop music — New York Puerto Ricans are often overlooked when it comes to their involvement in the advancement and growth of the genre and Lopez often explains how it’s the music that soundtracked her youth. If anything, Lopez’s juggling of genres within her career is a proper representation of the Latinx experience that audiences didn’t fully comprehend when she debuted; a showing of how Latinx and Black identity is more alike than they are different. Musical solidarity doesn’t quite mean a one size fits all sort of representation that the industry has put upon Lopez though — see the confusion and dismay that followed the announcement that she would be performing a tribute to the music of Motown at the 2019 Grammy Awards earlier this year.
Lopez’s level of success, as a woman and as a Latinx artist, has layered intricacies to what she symbolizes as a pop culture icon today. To her large Latinx fanbase, and especially in the United States, she’s the ultimate status to aspire to when it comes to making it as a Latinx in America, without sacrificing your heritage and who you are. On the other hand, her career simultaneously showcases the marketing mindsets of industry executives then and now and how Black artists have and will continue to shape the cultural landscape of art, music and beyond, whether they receive the due credit, acknowledgement and praise they deserve or not. In an age where fans demand the utmost transparency from their favorite artists, maybe a nod of acknowledgement from Lopez regarding who helped shape her musical success, is all that people ask of her.