Jessica Simpson’s ‘In This Skin’ Turns 14: Backtracking

Before she became the frontwoman of a billion dollar fashion and lifestyle empire, Jessica Simpson was one of pop’s “It” girls of the new millennium. After The Spice Girls reintroduced the concept of Girl Power with a cry of “zig a zig ah,” the scene was flooded with a new group of youthful princesses. Amidst a stream of tightly produced Swede-pop masterpieces and pleas of being rubbed the right way, the Texas native emerged as one of the most wholesome acts out of the bunch.

The daughter of a minister, she was signed to Columbia Records after impressing CEO Tommy Mottola in 1998 and released her first album in 1999. Preceded by the top 5 hit “I Wanna Love You Forever,” the project was a collection of ballads that placed her as the foil to her Lolita-esque peers. It became a respectable hit but hid the blossoming pop star behind her religious purity. The album and its campaign presented her more as more of an angel than a real person.

It wasn’t until four years later that she got to truly bare her heart on her third LP In This Skin. The opus debuted 14 years ago today (August 19) and went on to become one of her best-selling and most honest releases to date.

2003 was a wild year in pop music. While Britney Spears was writhing around onstage in a sexed up wedding dress and making out with the Queen of Pop and Christina Aguilera was discovering the glory of assless chaps and participating in underground fight clubs (before also kissing Madonna), Jessica Simpson followed a different path. As her peers amped up their sex appeal and got a little ratchet (before ratchet was even a thing), she decided to take a less is more approach for her forthcoming LP.

After attempting to match Brit’s doe-eyed, girl next door aesthetic on 2001’s Irresistible, it was clear that the direction was not for her. She dutifully bared her toned physique and executed tight choreography in the title track’s music video, propelling the single further up the charts with every flick of her hair; however, the album itself was poorly received. Despite plans to write on the release, Jessica was encouraged to hand over creative control to Columbia’s horde of writers and producers. The result was a pristine albeit overproduced collection that had little cohesion and failed to explore her own artistic capabilities. Jessica Simpson was still a product at the whim of her handlers and, as a result, failed to resonate with an audience.

Things were different as Simpson began pulling together her third project; the then 23-year-old discovered a new confidence in her abilities. In 2002 she married her boyfriend of 4 years, 98 Degrees frontman Nick Lachey. The couple signed a deal with MTV to document their first years of marriage via the iconic Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, and her ditzy but lovable demeanor made the pop princess a household name. The reality show followed the new wife as she recorded her project and showed a pop star in control.

After saying that she wasn’t brave enough to call the shots on her last outing, she wrote on 9 of the 11 songs that made the tracks list for In This Skin. In interviews Nick described the album as “more organic” and authentic while praising Jessica’s writing skills. “She’s an incredible writer, and she’s doing stuff that’s really from her heart,” he promised ahead of the release. It turns out that her heart was overflowing with the shimmer of love. The album became an ode to her relationship and contained romantic cuts including the lead single “Sweetest Sin.”

After publicly donning a promise ring and vowing to remain virginal until marriage, Jessica sang longingly of the opportunity to make love to her husband. Written by the legendary Diane Warren and produced by Ric Wake and Richie Jones, it was one of two songs that she didn’t have a hand in crafting. That didn’t stop her from delivering a compelling performance. “Your lips upon my lips, your fingertips on my fingertips, your skin upon my skin, would be the sweetest sin,” she lustily crooned on the chorus.

The happily married duo showed off their relationship in the music video, which featured them frolicking in a tropical paradise before snuggling up in a bed on the beach. Although the track received positive reviews from critics, it failed to make an impact and didn’t exactly propel the project to the top of the charts. Upon release, In This Skin debuted at the tenth spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart. It wasn’t a bad showing, but it was lower than expected for an established act’s third release. Luckily, the album’s story was one of gradual success.

The lead single may have introduced a romantic theme, but it was second single “With You” that ensured the opus become a hit. Jess wrote the track with producers Andy Marvel and Billy Mann, and it was the straightforward pop bop that would go on to define the album. Singing about being liberated in love over a sunny production, she had never before been more radiant. The song’s music video cleverly paid tribute to Newlyweds and highlighted her down to earth personality while revisiting some of the most enduring puns from the show. Dealing with boob sweat, treating a chicken wing (and a boot) as a microphone and reclining on a pile of dirty laundry, the pop princess showed that she had finally found peace in nothing but her T-shirt. Her personal joy paid off, and the single peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The self-assured optimism of “With You” was more indicative of the remainder of the album, which maintained bright notes while exploring a variety of pop’s sub-genres. “My Way Home” and “Forbidden Fruit” dabbled in dance music and incorporated elements of Middle Eastern instrumentation over buoyant synths. “I Have Loved You” and “Everyday See You” returned to balladry but stripped back some of the pageantry of previous records.

Love for her husband was not the only theme explored on the album. “You Don’t Have To Let Go” was a tender moment dedicated to her parents. “I don’t need your strength anymore, because you’ve made me strong” she promised as she moved on to the newest adventure. The album’s title track played up folksier elements as she sang about learning to love herself despite overwhelming expectations, and “Be” followed a similar style as she wistfully dreamt of future children.

A re-release of the LP in 2004 spawned two additional singles, both romantic covers that fit comfortably within the scope of the project but showcased the newlywed’s soaring vocals to greater effect. The first was a remake of Berlin’s 1986 power ballad “Take My Breath Away.” Jessica described the single as the her theme song with Nick because it played the first time they kissed. Sweetly crooning on the introduction, she went on to unleash one of her most dramatic performances over a production as sweet as her edible Desserts cosmetics line (may that venture RIP). Accompanied by a music video that glorified relationships young and old, the single rocketed all the way to the top 20 and became a fitting follow up for “With You.”

The project’s final single was a reworking of Robbie Williams’s classic “Angels,” which transformed the acoustic ballad with a dazzling pop treatment. As her schedule was ramping up ahead of a North American tour and other promotional responsibilities, Jessica recorded the two new releases in one day with Nick assisting with vocal production.

The hard work paid off, and In This Skin experienced an impressive rise on the charts. The album found a new peak on the Billboard 200, soaring up to the number 2 spot and going on to sell more than 7 million records worldwide. It was a victorious story for the album; however, things did not end as well for the couple that inspired the project. In 2005 they filed for divorce, bringing an end to their happy ending and becoming the inspiration for Jessica’s followup album, 2006’s Public Affair.

Though their relationship was mercurial, the album managed to bottle all the hope that Jessica experienced looking toward the future. At 23, she was joyful in love and confident that she’d be able to overcome anything in her way. Today, the project offers a glimpse into the past and reminds listeners of all that the “Come On Over” hitmaker is capable of. As she returns to the studio to craft her first album since 2010, I can only hope that the remarried mother of two is even more inspired this time around and is able to pull from a new bevy of life experiences to create an equally timeless release.

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