The multi-talented superstar, who hails from New York City's Castle Hill section of the Bronx, has had a lead on that little secret of survival long before she ever stepped in front of a movie camera. It is only now, with the release of her much anticipated debut for the WORK Group, On The 6, that she can take a breath and dare to look back.
"I call the album On The 6 because I think about traveling on the 6 train," she says. "That's how I used to go into the city to audition, dance in clubs, dance classes. It was how I used to come home."
A lot has happened since. It's the perfect metaphor for a girl whose gutsy blend of fearlessness and raw beauty conquered worlds far beyond a rickety subway line. "It's how I started my journey," she says proudly.
One that began around age four, when she first began to dream she was going to be 'somebody'. By the time she was a teenager, she had years of dancing classes under her belt, as well as rock-solid values instilled by her hard-working Puerto Rican parents. But Jennifer also recognized there were other mountains to climb. If you follow her trail back to the days before she was one of Hollywood's hottest stars, you'll find traces of her trademark bravado and sensuality in every movie:
An eye-opening stint with FOX's ground-breaking comedy Living Color as one of the Flygirls; a street-wise role on the ill-fated TV series South Central; and eventually her first film appearance, landing a crucial part in director Gregory Nava's Latino epic Mi Familia. She landed another plum role along side Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in Money Train. Cut to career-defining roles in 1996's Selena and 1998's Out of Sight, where Lopez's mesmerizing performance as a street-savvy cop opposite George Clooney created the ultimate screen chemistry, and you could sense the buzz surrounding Lopez was beginning to bubble over.
The sum of such electrifying moments, however, still didn't add up to the total Jennifer. Even though the national media began painting her in Madonna and Monroe-esque strokes ("Watching her is like seeing molten rock churn under pressure," crowed Entertainment Weekly) it would take an epic, yet personal work, like On The 6, to fully flesh out what lies behind those smoldering brown eyes: a captivating voice -and more importantly- and untamed soul, yearning to musically express the joyful, sometimes painful, unpredictable ride of life.
"This is a dream come true for me," she says. "Music has always been an important part of my life. It's funny, but when I look back, there's always a song that will take me there. Christmas was always salsa and merengue. Thanksgiving -the songs from West Side Story, which for some reason always came on then. Barbra Streisand -she always reminds me of my mother because she's a huge fan. I remember being in the school playground at lunchtime and hearing 'Rapper's Delight'. I was so open when I heard it, my face lit up. And I remember Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam's 'All Cried Out' , when I was 13 or 14, because I was going through my first little heartbreak."
No doubt a new generation of fans will be reacting to Jennifer's powerful debut effort, pumped and primed for the Latino-tinged anthem "Let's Get Loud", produced by Emilio Estefan, or swooning to the album's poignant opener "If You Had My Love." that track was helmed by Grammy award winning producer Rodney Jerkins (Michael Jackson, Brandy), with Jennifer's magnetic voice pulling the listener all the way into the story. Like many of the album's tracks, it was co-written by the album's executive producer Corey Rooney.
"I looked to Corey for most of the leadership on this album," she says. "We did a lot of listening to different kinds of music. For me, lyrics are very important. Every song on the album was something that touched me very deeply. They ring very true. Words move me, but more than that it's the images that you create. You close your eyes and you can feel what that person is going through and you connect with it. To me, that's what music is all about."
Coming from the cradle of the hip hop and Latin hip hop movements, (the boogie-down Bronx), it's no surprise that great beats also motivate Jennifer. Webo, salsa, disco, rap, R&B, are all part of her music vocabulary. She was determined from the start to enlist the best producers, forging a signature sound that resonates long after you identified the styles. "I call it Latin soul," she says. And it is indeed a diverse mix of Latin-tinged and hip hop-driven rhythms that steers On The 6. Superstar producers such as the aforementioned Estefan and Jerkins, as well as Sean "Puffy" Combs (Faith Evans, the Notorious BIG), Rick Wake (Celine Dion) and Track Masters (Will Smith, Nas, LL Cool J), among others, all stepped up for some of their best work.
"I was fortunate to work with all of the great people that I did," she says. "It was great to work with Puffy, for example. He's the consummate professional. He always know what he's doing in the studio. You can hear it in the track we did." The song, "Feelin' So Good", which includes blistering rap cameos by fellow Bronx alumni Fat Joe and Big Punisher, captures that street corner feel that Jennifer remembers from her clubbing days. "I had an idea for the video already for that one," she laughs. "I wanted to get off the train and have Pun and Joe meet me in front of my actual apartment in the Bronx. I have my parka on and we head downtown to a club. We emerge at 6:00 AM and it's daylight. Back in the day, if you came out of the Tunnel and it was daytime, you knew you were in trouble."
It's those authentic moments, fondly recalled by Jennifer, that anchor On The 6. Having to collaborate with a myriad of producers -and facing a whole new set of pressures as she high dives head-first into the music industry- she is able to keep it real by never forgetting the importance of her journey. It is that compass, musically and spiritually, that guides this ambitious debut.
"There's a reason I call it Latin soul," she says. "It's a mixture of all the things that I was when I was growing up. I was coming up when hip hop and R&B was something we all loved. Latin freestyle was big then. I always wanted to bring that all together in a pop format. My mother always had a big appreciation for music. Musical, operas, pop. We listened to everything. I remember when I first sat down with the record company about what I wanted to do, they weren't quite sure of all the styles I wanted to incorporate. But they were great, very supportive. After they heard the first couple of tracks, they realized what I was trying to accomplish."
Ironically, the WORK Group's Co-President Jeff Ayeroff came close to originally signing Jennifer when he was with Virgin Records, and Lopez was still a Flygirl. It was after Selena came out that the executive approached her again.
Now, the same audience that flocked to her critically-acclaimed performance will love the stirring duet with Latin Superstar Marc Anthony, on the heart-wrenching "No Me Ames". "I'm Marc's biggest fan," says Jennifer. "He's incredibly talented and knows how to interpret a song." Another album highlight is the haunting ballad "Should Have Never", produced by Poke and Tone of the Track Masters. Jennifer shares the writing credits with Corey Rooney on the latter, and recalls that is was this particular track that taught her the most about songwriting.
"The Track Masters brought us this guitar loop for that, and it sounded like the Gypsy Kings, and I was like, 'Yeah, that's just what I'm looking for.' Corey said, 'Go home and listen to it, and get some ideas for a song.' And I came back and I described this whole scenario for it, like a movie. So we went into the next room and I just started describing this story about a girl who says, 'I should have never touched you, looked at you, etc.' And he was like, 'Great, that will be the chorus.' And we just put it into words."
The result is a song, and an album, as seductive as any one of her movie roles, but rooted in those raw, vital truths she learned a long time ago. Encouraged by family and friends, she nurtured those roots, extending her grasp to achieve goals that most girls her age only dreamed about. Dreams that too often end with the closing of subway doors.
It's more than fitting that an album filled with such aspirations should be crafted by a dancer who wanted to be singer, who evolved into an actress, who finally got the opportunity to sing. On The 6, in many ways, is about coming full circle.
"This album completes the journey. Doing television, the movies, and now this, I'm actually accomplishing what I set out to do," she says. "There's something to be said about patience. Because you could be running toward something, when what you want is right behind you trying to catch up with you."