Mariah Carey and Jennifer Lopez, now entering their mid-40s, have settled down quite a bit since dominating Y2K-era pop music. Both got married–Carey to corniest man alive Nick Cannon and Lopez to Bahstin’s own Ben Affleck (they separated in 2011)–and both became mothers by bringing sets of twins into the world, Lopez giving birth to Emme and Maximillian and Carey welcoming Monroe and Moroccan (aka Roc & Roe, aka #DemBabies. That website is a treasure).
However, Carey and Lopez are not just mothers to their own children. They are now essentially the mothers of pop music. The newest generation of pop stars grew up idolizing them, and are now realizing their childhood dreams of becoming the next Mariah or J-Lo (in this family analogy, Madonna is pop music’s crazy grandmother who thinks she’s 22 and constantly embarrasses everyone). But these mothers aren’t quite ready to trade in their microphones for minivans just yet–each recently put out albums in an attempt to show the world that they’ve still got it.
Both Lopez’s A.K.A. and Carey’s ridiculously titled Me. I Am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse have our aging starlets trying to prove that they are capable of making relevant pop songs in 2014. These efforts were dubbed “MILF pop” by Grantland’s Molly Lambert, and that is a brilliantly accurate way of describing the vibe of these albums. J-Loand Mariah both come off as the sexy, talented pop stars they’ve been for decades now, but also run into points where their advanced age clearly shows.
Now, there are basically two ways that a person can approach the transition into parenthood and middle age. You can age gracefully, take it all in stride, and accept that, despite your prior coolness, you won’t always be perceived as cool anymore because you are, in fact, getting old. Or, on the other hand, you can delusionally cling to the idea of your youth, doing anything and everything you can to extend your prime for another few days. Going by their respective albums, Mariah seems to have smoothly transitioned into this new phase of her life, while J-Lo’s desperate attempts to exude the youthful vibrancy of today’s fresh-faced female pop stars make her come off like “cool mom” Mrs. George in Mean Girls.
On Me. I Am Mariah, Carey does a fantastic job of blending the old with the new, injecting some new life into her sound while largely staying true to the formula that has led her to huge success in the past. The album was executive-produced by Carey along with Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, who contributed to two of her biggest hits, “We Belong Together” and “Shake It Off”. Dupri and Cox also produced four tracks on Me. I Am Mariah, including the soaring “Make It Look Good” and the groovy “You Don’t Know What To Do”, the latest disco-revival smash that is only slightly dampered by Wale’s guest feature. “Meteorite”, another outstanding disco-tinged song, was produced by the legendary Q-Tip, who had a hand in Carey’s 1997 hit “Honey”. And, of course, Mariah came through with some big Mariah ballads, notably “Cry.” and “Camouflage”, both co-written and produced by James “Big Jim” Wright, yet another artist whom she had previously worked with.
The album’s real highlights, though, were not the songs where Carey strictly stuck to the ways of the past, but the ones where she pushed her distinctive sound into the future. “#Beautiful” is a gorgeous duet between Carey and the silky-smooth Miguel that feels comfortably familiar while sounding like nothing else on current pop radio. “Faded”, produced by Mike WiLL Made It, is what I wished the songs that he produced for Miley Cyrus sounded like. And the absolute cream of the crop are two of the three songs on the album produced by Hit-Boy, who burst onto the scene with “N****s in Paris” in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. “Thirsty” is a fierce beat, starting off sounding like a wall-shaking banger, but then the chorus comes in and the beat and Mariah’s voice simultaneously rise up to an ethereal plane, making it seem like an angel just appeared over the dark dance floor.
And the best song on the album, “Dedicated”, thoroughly encapsulates Mariah’s newfound elder stateswoman status. Accompanied by a beat built around boom-bappy drums, gorgeous keyboards, and a sample of Inspectah Deck spitting “carry like Mariah” from the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck”, Mariah and hip-hop legend Nas, another aging star who’s been working for over two decades now, joyfully reminisce about the good old days of classic 80s hip-hop while displaying their incredible, timeless talents. At this point in their careers, Mariah and Nas may be better suited to wax nostalgic rather than set any new trends, but Mariah’s extraordinary voice and Nas’ shrewd wordplay are still sharp enough to make some great music.
Unfortunately, J-Lo didn’t follow Mariah’s lead, instead chasing one last chance at cultural relevancy by hopping on damn near all of the Hot Music Trends of 2014. Her big single from A.K.A., “First Love”, was co-written and produced by Ilya, who did the same for Ariana Grande’s awful “Problem”. “First Love” is thankfully a better song than “Problem”, and is actually one of the better songs on A.K.A. But the over-the-top production and dull subject matter give the song a blaring vapidity that is a dramatic shift from J-Lo’s traditional sound, which was more laid-back and full of her slick city girl “Jenny From The Block” personality. “First Love” will probably get a ton of airplay simply due to the fact that it’s a reasonable facsimile of many other songs currently on top 40 radio, but it is a far cry from J-Lo’s best work.
Lopez has also had an illustrious history of collaborations with rappers, making some of the best songs of her career with fellow New Yorkers Ja Rule, Fat Joe, and LL Cool J, among others. However, the songs with rap features on her new album are nowhere near that level. Title track “A.K.A.” is a factory-processed, wub-heavy song featuring T.I., who can still deliver solid verses and does here, but he’s nearly washed up at this point, and seems to be following Ludacris’ career path as an Atlanta rapper going from being one of the hottest in the game in the mid-2000s to making cameos on trash pop songs for fast cash. “Worry No More” with Rick Ross is one of the better cuts on the album just because it’s not clearly awful in any way, but it is pretty bland and quickly forgettable. “Acting Like That” features Iggy Azalea, who continues to be trash. “Booty” might be the worst song of the year, with Pitbull doing a horrible Bubba Sparxxx impression after J-Lo pretends she’s the Latina version of Redfoo for two minutes.
J-Lo did take one page out of the Mariah playbook, bringing in Nas to rap on a song with a sample from a classic early-90s hip-hop song, in this case the saxophone loop from Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)”, originally taken from Tom Scott’s “Today”. While it was inevitable that someone would sample the greatest sax loop ever in the year where seemingly every pop song needs a sax loop, it’s still an unfortunate development. “T.R.O.Y.” is not only a perfect song that shouldn’t be messed with, but the song was also tribute by Pete Rock & CL Smooth to their fallen friend “Trouble” T. Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz, and sampling something that meaningful to make a pop song called “Troubeaux” is pretty weak. Without that context, “Troubeaux” is a fine song, a bonus track that is better than most on the actual album, and it’s not nearly as offensive as Lupe Fiasco’s abomination with the same sample from a few years back, but all things considered, “Troubeaux” was a bad idea that should have been scrapped. Plus, J-Lo already had a great song with a sax loop with “Get Right” back in 2005, which is better than any sax-infused song from this year.
Somewhat surprisingly, the standout on A.K.A. is French Montana, Khloe Kardashian’s newest fling who Us Weekly hilariously called a “womanizing, wannabe thug” on the cover of their latest issue. Montana guests on the Detail-produced “I Luh Ya Papi”, which manages to be the best song on the album despite clunky lyrics from J-Lo and the fact that it’s ten times worse than Detail’s biggest hit, Bey and Jay’s “Drunk in Love”. And bonus track “Same Girl”, also featuring Montana, is so vastly superior to any song actually on the album that someone at Capitol Records needs to be fired for being a total idiot and not realizing that. “Same Girl” actually resembles a prime J-Lo track, and the Bronx connection between Lopez and Montana brings out some endearing charm that is sorely missed on the rest of A.K.A. It turns out that Lopez chose to call the album A.K.A. over Same Girl, and I can’t help but dream of an alternate universe in which she chose Same Girl instead, with “Same Girl” as the title track of a classic-sounding J-Lo album.
Ultimately, when it comes to determining how cool moms are, it’s up for the kids to decide. After hearing these two albums, I think it’s safe to say that Monroe and Moroccan are more likely to brag to their friends about how cool their mom is, while Emme and Maximillian might pull out the old “I don’t know that weird lady” trick. But I guess that’s only fair, since Emme and Maximillian don’t have to deal with a dad as lame as Nick Cannon.