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Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Jordan Knight, Juno

Ricky Martin
Ricky Martin
C2/Columbia

Jennifer Lopez
On the 6
WORK

Jordan Knight
Jordan Knight
Interscope

New Man on the Block, or NMOTB if you're nasty, Jordan Knight does well.
New Man on the Block, or NMOTB if you're nasty, Jordan Knight does well.
"Music? What music? Now sit down next to me on my couch."
"Music? What music? Now sit down next to me on my couch."

Ricky Martin's status as a former teen heartthrob has also given his image a hint of live-and-learn credibility. At a time when bubblegum boy bands seem to be popping up more frequently than lawsuits against the World Wrestling Federation, forefathers like Martin see a perfect time to come out of hiding and show that they've matured as artists. Former New Kid on the Block Joey McIntyre and Robbie Williams, of the long-forgotten (well, around here anyway) UK group Take That, have both surfaced with solo efforts. Jordan Knight, another New Kid-turned-new man is also slipping into the mix with his solo debut.

In terms of musical maturity, slow-and-steady Knight fares better than eager-beaver Martin. Working alongside producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Robin Thicke and former New Kid-in-crime Donnie Wahlberg, Knight presents himself as a studly alternative to Martin's perpetual heartbreak mode. His first single, "Give It to You," has him making naughty promises to the ladies amid some Timbaland-inspired beats. "Anyone can make you sweat / But I can keep you wet," he sings. (Take that, you Latino loser!) The album's best track, "A Different Party," is a rowdy jam that makes "La Vida Loca" sound like an acoustic downer from Morrissey. Lifting a guitar sample from Sugarloaf's '70s funk-rock artifact "Green-Eyed Lady," Knight goes ballistic as zonked-out horns and scatting organs accompany him on a righteous, randy romp. The cats at Interscope would have to be out of their freakin' minds not to release it as his next single.

"Change My Ways" and "Don't Run" exhibit new-jack cool. He even does a take on Prince's "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." Now, although I have a strict policy on what should be done to performers who even think about redoing a Prince song (basically, they should be knocked upside the goddamned head), Knight and associates slow down the tempo and put a new spin on the tune and make it slightly tolerable.

Speaking of tolerance, Ricky Martin asks, "Do you really want it?" on "The Cup of Life," the soccer anthem that has made him, more or less, the man that he is today. The same question can be asked of his Latin fans about whether or not they would like to see one of their favorite fiery performers get watered down as he enters pop consciousness.

You see, kids, Ricky Martin isn't just a Latin troubadour who has successfully crossed over into the pop-music mainstream, he's a sensation! He's a phenomenon, a Rick Springfield for the new millennium. And therein lies the problem: Most pop sensations suck. I don't mean to playa-hate on Mr. Martin. Anyone who saw him turn out this year's Grammys knows that the boy's got game. But once someone gets sucked into the pop-music strata, that same passion, that fire, that Catherine Zeta-Jones for music, if you will, typically peters out.

That's the big problem with his self-titled, English-speaking debut. This "Latin pop" album is more pop than Latin. Many of the nonbilingual songs on this album could easily appear on a Corey Hart or John Waite album, since Martin and his writing-producing crew must think the best pop music was done during the mid-'80s. Plus, for a dude who once showed such uninhibited promise, he seems shockingly subdued. Misty-eyed numbers such as "She's All I Ever Had" (co-written by another tortured Latin lothario, Jon Secada), "Love You for a Day," and the Diane Warren double-shot of "You Stay with Me" and "I Count the Minutes" have him sounding more than restrained. He sounds pussy-whipped. Martin comes alive on this album when the tempo changes and he gets jiggy with it, like on, of course, "Livin' La Vida Loca" or "Shake Your Bon-Bon." Or even when he goes flamenco with Madonna on "Be Careful." Martin might be a lover, not a fighter, but it would help if he showed some reckless abandon every once in a while. After hearing the stream of thick power ballads, "Livin' La Vida Loca" sounds subversively spry in comparison.

Martin's Latin connection has obviously become a hot media angle, with magazines writing up big-ass articles on Latin pop as if it just happened yesterday. (Has anyone ever heard of a man named Desi Arnaz?) Speaking of big asses, curvy-as-hell actress Jennifer Lopez is riding a similar wave of hype surrounding her debut album, On the 6.

Martin and Lopez have been esthetically linked as musical soul mates, the prince and princess of Latin pop. Just like Martin, Lopez wants to appeal to everyone. And she does. "If You Had My Love" and "It's Not That Serious," both produced by Rodney Jerkins, cross Caribbean rhythms with R&B bounce to make them play practically anywhere. "Open Off My Love" has a fiesta flavor to appease Latin listeners. The Puffy-produced "Feelin' So Good," with guest work from hip-hop largemen Big Pun and Fat Joe, covers the hip-hop crowd. The lite-FM balladry of "Promise Me You'll Try" gets the adult-contemporary folk. And "Let's Go Loud," co-written by Gloria Estefan, with its salsa rhythm, horn work and lyrics ("Let the music make you free / Be what you wanna be"), may become the newest gay disco anthem.

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