Happy 15th Anniversary to Jennifer Lopez’s third studio album This Is Me…Then, originally released November 25, 2002.
In 2002, Jennifer Lopez was riding the crest of the pop culture wave, the magnitude of her success story unprecedented. But when it came to her music, regardless of the general public's fervor for it, the critical arm of the music industry found Lopez undeserving of praise. They viewed the thespian/dancer turned singer as a Hollywood interloper peddling “vanity projects.”
Granted, Lopez was no stranger to embracing a trend. Her pair of Murder Inc. remixes (“I’m Real,” “Ain’t It Funny”) were damning evidence of this. Still, there was magic at work in entries like “Waiting for Tonight” and “Play,” hinting at something beyond the chase of the charts. That’s vital in understanding the substantial risk (musically) that Lopez took at the height of her popularity with her junior outing This Is Me…Then, an album that functions as her love letter to vintage hip-hop, classic R&B and timeless pop.
The root catalyst for this creative clarity in Lopez can be linked to her high-profile, albeit ephemeral romance with actor Ben Affleck. The union made Lopez seek a suitable channel for her feelings—the music of her Bronx youth. To put the effort together Lopez enlisted a mix of familiar and new faces for the This Is Me…Then sessions. Select staff, on writing and production duty, included Cory Rooney, Kevin Veney, Bernard Edwards Jr. (Focus…), Dan Shea, Davy Deluge, Trackmasters, Troy Oliver and Reggie Hamlet. Lopez herself co-penned nine of the project’s 11 cuts.
Her aforementioned tastes were unsurprisingly eclectic, given her New York upbringing, and were used in the construction of the music on This Is Me…Then, in its original and sampled forms. The overall template for the album is a warm R&B-pop formula that's a little bit jazzy and a little bit funky. Groove and melody lead the beat without totally abandoning it (“Still,” “Baby I ♡ U!”), which gives the LP a sophisticated feel rather than an austere one.
Returning to the samples, there are plenty to discover on the project. Two in particular—“You Are Everything” by The Stylistics (on “The One”) and “Juicy Fruit” by Mtume (on “Loving You”) —have appeared, reworked, in tracks aplenty in modern R&B and hip-hop circles. Lopez makes them new here, specifically on “Loving You.” By taking “Juicy Fruit” down to just its beat and (some of) its candied effects, it allows Lopez's own flourishes, namely flute simulacrums, to bring a fresh twist to an oft used urban jam ingredient.
This inventive “sample manipulation” rears its head elsewhere on the long player too. Lopez spikes her cover of Carly Simon’s “You Belong to Me,” an already rhythmic piece, with a turntable favorite—T Ski Valley's “Catch the Beat”—which makes the track hit just a little harder. “I’m Glad” pinches from Schooly D’s hardcore standard “P.S.K., What Does It Mean?,” refashioning its percussive elements to act as the perfect foil for the melancholic melody of Lopez's song.
All of these feats, accomplished as they are, pale in comparison to the smooth fusion exercise on “Jenny From the Block,” a cut that houses no less than four samples—“Hi-Jack” (by Jose Fernando Arbex Miro), “Heaven and Hell Is on Earth” (by 20th Century Steel Band), “Watch Out Now” (by The Beatnuts), and “South Bronx” (by Boogie Down Productions). Within the larger scheme of the record, the song is its most extroverted moment, but it doesn’t sacrifice the overall collected vibe of This Is Me…Then. Lopez’s ear for music and her ability to draft the best and brightest to bring her aural visions to life attest to her own skills as it relates to the sometimes troublesome art form of sampling. And what of the original fare?
Both “Again” and “I’ve Been Thinkin’,” excellent examples of Lopez’s songwriting growth, deliver drama and depth to her recorded output. Only “Dear Ben,” the most overt gesture of romantic fealty to Affleck, borders on saccharine. Barring that? Compositions on this set are strong and supported by Lopez’s vocals, full-bodied and able throughout.
Key to the album's unified appeal, sound-wise, is audio engineer Bruce Swedien, an industry veteran with credits boasting the likes of Patti Austin, Herbie Hancock, Roberta Flack and Michael Jackson. In fact, it was Lopez’s love of Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979) and Swedien’s work there that led her to seek out his services. Swedien’s touch assuredly makes Lopez’s desire of pulling forward the sensibilities of the music she loved from the past successfully into the present day on This Is Me…Then.
In late September 2002, Lopez’s first single from her third album, the declarative “girl next door makes good” anthem “Jenny From the Block” went on to dominate the airplay and sales charts. The Francis Lawrence directed video, with a feature from Affleck, intensified the media storm around Lopez. The ultimate goal? To draw attention to This Is Me…Then as a complete body of work when revealed on November 25, 2002. The set's three additional singles that stretched well into the late summer of 2003 —“All I Have” (with LL Cool J), “I’m Glad” and “Baby I ♡ U!”—ensured their parent album's gold and platinum certifications in almost every major music market.
This Is Me…Then was irrefutable proof of a newly minted creative thought process in Lopez's musical work ethic. The critics thought so too, as This Is Me...Then won Lopez some of her strongest reviews of her career. Additionally, This Is Me...Then dressed the table for her later artistic watermarks, namely the one-two punch releases of Como Ama una Mujer and Brave in 2007. Though its title represents a moment in time for Lopez personally, This Is Me...Then still gets listeners to tune in and turn it up today, and that's very telling of the album's quality and its enduring appeal.