Since 1999, Jennifer Lopez has lived the American dream: with little musical talent, she’s found producers who can expertly build catchy beats that can hide her underwhelming vocal ability. Somehow, she’s fooled the American public well, and she’s now on her fourth (fourth!) album of new material, “Rebirth.”

Walking into this review, I was prepared and, sadly, a little excited to have the chance to knock her heavily.

Her first single, “Get Right,” was more of the same from Lopez, with horns blaring out over a heavy, catchy backbeat and becoming a very good distraction away from her ever-mediocre vocals. This go around, however, Lopez threw a few surprises into the mix that help rank this as her best effort since her debut.

“Step Into My World,” the second track, has yet another creative beat that is as catchy as her big hits. (I hope her producers get paid well.) But instead of her loud, bland vocals, she sings in a soft, sultry voice, and sounds like a completely different woman. Indeed, it sounds like someone else is singing…an extremely gifted studio singer. Chalk one up to the thrice-married Lopez – this track actually shows she has an ability to sing.

Her duet with Fat Joe, “Hold You Down,” is uninspired compared to the catchy “Feelin’ So Good” from the “On the 6” album, which had a much more vibrant beat. Lopez works better with uptempo material, and “Down” is just another example of this.

One thing that remains consistent throughout the album is that frequently the music is louder than the vocals, burying her singing, which seems to continue attempts to hide her voice behind the beats and cover up her vocal limitations. This is slightly irritating, because on some tracks it sounds like she’s actually improving as a singer as she gracefully grows older.

Along that line, the choruses of the tracks also serve as another way to bury her vocals within layer upon layer of background singers, which again make this less Lopez and more producer-driven. In some of the choruses she seems to take a backseat to the singers, in fact. You wonder if Lopez might be able to carry some of the tunes better now. Then again, maybe the production decisions are dictated by how her singing came out when she hit the studio.

Still, it’s when those production choices are avoided that the strongest tracks become apparent. “I Got U,” other than the stupid spelling of “you” that mars many releases today, is another solid choice. Her voice comes through, even on the choruses, and her soft singing again sells this song.

“I Got U,” along with a couple of others, has her hitting some high notes, and personally I find those notes make her sound like a chipmunk. She might want to stick to a lower range in the future, as she does in “Still Around,” which is another solid, midtempo track, but with a more restrained vocal range.

The production behind the album remains stellar, with regular collaborator Cory Rooney back for more inspired tracks with Lopez. The beats are never really a problem here – the album doesn’t have the feel of filler. The song lyrics themselves aren’t Shakespeare, but as pop music goes, it fits well with the radio fabric of 2005.

Ultimately, this album feels like a rebirth… well, sort of. While the production continues its top-notch course (the record company has obviously backed her since the beginning), her singing has finally shown some improvement, and certain tracks give her the chance to show that newfound talent off.

Yet her vocals are still stretched in ways it shouldn’t be, and many tracks cover her up as politely as possible.

This will be another strong seller, but after four albums, one wonders if her singing will ever get much better, or if on stronger tracks whether her vocals will be given the chance to shine when she’s onto something.

This album will likely rival Poland Spring in terms of volume sold this year, but hopefully with the obvious fifth album we’ll see some further evolution.

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