Brave, the title of Jennifer Lopez's new album out today, is a misnomer. And the cover shot, featuring the pop star in an intense face-off with her own image, is also misleading. The title and packaging suggest that J. Lo is breaking new artistic ground, that she's challenging herself to do more than the trend-conscious dance-pop that pushed her four previous albums to multiplatinum sales.
But that isn't the case at all. Brave is the safest, most predictable album Lopez has recorded. Maybe pregnancy, as it's been rumored, has brought out a tamer side, also seen during her tepid performance with Marc Anthony Friday night at the Verizon Center in Washington.
Coming just seven months after Como Ama una Mujer, her lackluster Spanish-language set, Brave is supposed to return J. Lo to the clubs and the pop charts. But the attempt feels halfhearted, and nothing on the set catches fire.
The singer's nonexistent vocal prowess aside, the production, overseen by Lopez and Cory Rooney, is painfully formulaic. Though J. Lo has never been a musical trailblazer, she has shown the ability to add flavor to current pop trends. Her last big dance smash, last year's "Get Right," was a banging number that deftly sampled a honking saxophone line from an old James Brown record. It was almost impossible to sit still whenever that cut charged through club speakers.
However, Brave features nothing that propulsive and hard-hitting. Lopez generally ignores the current sounds heating up the charts. She makes no nods to the minimalist electro-funk that has recently catapulted the likes of Rihanna, Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake to multiplatinum sales. Instead, Mrs. Marc Anthony settles into a mundane groove of limp beats and DayGlo choruses that echo the sounds of dance-pop circa 1994.
Lyrically, J. Lo mostly extols the virtues of old-fashioned romantic love, the weathering-the-storm kind that retro-soul singers wail about. The album starts with "Stay Together," a neon anthem of commitment during which the twice-divorced Lopez chirps: "Heartbreaks are overrated/Stay together/That's the new trend." Such sentiments are sweet, but ultimately the track falls flat with its thin breakbeats and dated synth fills.
On the uptempo cuts, Lopez lazily builds upon obvious samples. "Hold It Don't Drop It" sounds half-baked as it references the chugging bass line from "It Only Takes a Minute," the 1975 disco-funk classic by Tavares. "Gotta Be There" coasts on the dramatic intro of Michael Jackson's 1971 hit "I Wanna Be Where You Are." And for the album's first single, the tired "Do It Well," Lopez samples the already overused breakdown from Eddie Kendricks' 1973 smash "Keep On Truckin'."
Here and there, Lopez exudes some charm. "I Need Love," a bright spot on Brave, rides on zippy strings and percussion lifted from Bill Withers' "Use Me." But the momentum of that track is quickly killed by the next number, "Wrong When You're Gone," a drippy, unconvincing ballad.
It's obvious throughout the 12-track album that J. Lo wanted Brave to emanate the warmth of her new settled life. She cheerily sings of monogamy and staying in love forever and ever. But with no musical zing, such cliched sentiments don't mean a thing.