Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
By 1999, Jennifer Lopez knew how it felt to face a crowd of thousands. But that crowd wasn’t hers – it belonged to Selena, the young Mexican-American star whose life was tragically cut short in 1995.
For the opening scene of the biopic Selena, released less than two years after the singer’s death, fans flooded Houston’s Astrodome to recreate the moment when Selena drew the largest crowd in the stadium’s history. And Lopez, Selena‘s star, was dedicated to her role – her most demanding yet. She smiled and waved like Selena. She nailed the choreography, too: every hip swing, step ball change and spin, with that glittery purple jumpsuit catching the light. But as this former musical theater kid and budding actress went through Selena’s motions, she realized that she wanted a singing career, too.
Jennifer’s 1999 debut On the 6 turned 15 on June 1, and the concept of the all-around entertainer is just as rare as it was back then. While actresses still try their hands in music, those records rarely hit the top of the charts. On The 6 was an exception, because of how Jennifer made that crossover effort seem both hard-earned and effortless.
Jennifer Lopez, “If You Had My Love”
The way Jennifer would stare into the camera – that was effortless. The premise of her “If You Had My Love” video is dated, yes: Inside his shadowy loft, a man watches as Jennifer sings, dances and showers – via livestream, at a time when aspiring Internet stars tried to film their lives 24/7. But the way she acts is now classic Jennifer, whether on screen or stage. One moment she’s tough, with her hard stares and insistent lyrics (“Now if I give you me, this is how it’s got to be / First of all I won’t take you cheating on me”). But then she pivots her hips and sneaks a casual smile over her shoulder. She was both a diva and down-to-earth.
Unlike in “Welcome To Jennifer Lopez Online,” Jennifer did not put On The 6 together alone. In fact, she worked with a top-notch group of artists and producers for both the Latin and soul aspects she wanted for On The 6. Producer Rodney Jerkins had already recorded with Whitney Houston and Brandy. Gloria Estefan originally co-wrote the Latin pop song (and On The 6‘s third single) “Let’s Get Loud” for herself. Jennifer would duet with salsero Marc Anthony on “No Me Ames,” a Spanish-language cover of the 1992 Aleandro Baldi ballad. And Miami soul veteran Betty Wright had churned out hits in the ’70s, like “Clean Up Woman,” before she worked with budding acts as a vocal producer.
“The encouragement that she provided to me was really priceless,” Jennifer said to MTV.
Jennifer Lopez, “Waiting for Tonight”
On The 6 took some critics by surprise because, with its “Latin soul” aims and her understated R&B murmur, Jennifer sounds more fully-formed than anticipated, like a mature woman. If there is a downside to this album, it’s the slight overemphasis on smooth ballads (“Should’ve Never,” “Could This Be Love”) that leave On The 6 feeling a little too polished by its end. The best of the album (mostly, the singles) would foreshadow how Jennifer would practically age in reverse, with her still being as alluring as she is in dance-pop hit “Waiting Tor Tonight.” Its most crucial song even harkens back to her childhood, like the album’s title referencing the New York subway line she rode from home to work and back.
After having grown up listening to the Sugarhill Gang, the first rap group to score a Top 40 hit with “Rapper’s Delight,” Jennifer sounds at ease in the breezy, hip hop-flavored “Feelin’ So Good.” She sings instead of how she’s taking care of herself (like she should), although fellow Puerto Ricans Big Pun and Fat Joe can’t help but woo her with lavish gifts. Future beau Puff Daddy helped produce the track, as did Cory Rooney, a Queens native and rising producer who caught the attention of Mariah Carey‘s manager Tommy Mottola for his work on Mary J. Blige‘s breakout hit “Real Love” – his first shot at hip-hop soul. Rooney still works with Jennifer to this day.
Jennifer Lopez, “Feelin’ So Good”
As she evolved into a veritable Latin music icon, Jennifer continued rooting herself in hip hop too, with “Feelin’ So Good” being the first example and Murder Inc.’s “I’m Real” remix being the most damning. (Lopez’s upcoming album A.K.A. features five rappers, including Iggy Azalea, Rick Ross and French Montana.) Songs like these are how she continues to reference her childhood in the Bronx, as she first would with On The 6 and as hip hop icons do – from Jay Z and Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, to Lil Wayne and New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects and Beyonce, Third Ward Trill, with Houston. That’s how they get fans to continue rooting for them, as if they’re still ordinary people just trying to get theirs.
“Hollywood’s hottest hottie is just a round-the-way girl at heart,” dream hampton wrote of Jennifer for VIBE in 1999. She would cover VIBE again four years later, but as the first artist ever to score a #1 album (J. Lo) and movie (The Wedding Planner) in the same week, the head of a growing empire and one-half of Bennifer. Despite all that, Jennifer insisted she saw herself differently.
“I’m still David and Lupe’s daughter. Still grew up in Castle Hill in the Bronx,” she said. “People may be like, ‘Why she always gotta say it, always reminding us.’ But you know what? Saying it aloud grounds me.”
And with that emphasis on her past, plus the same dedication she displayed in Selena, Jennifer proved that she can captivate thousands, if not millions as her own. On The 6 was just the beginning.
Did you pick up a copy of On The 6 back in the day? Let us know your thoughts on JLo’s very first album below!