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Too Legit To Quitney?

Too Legit To Quitney?

It might be the most shocking thing Britney Spears has done all year: She has, apparently, made a good album. Reviews are pouring in and they are pretty much glowing (or at least relatively positive) across the board, nearly every one proclaiming it her best album (which, I know, isn’t much, but still..). I honestly find this astonishing and fascinating. Her handlers should get some sort of special Grammy, as how exactly this album came to be is a bit of mystery (is it even her?).

The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly’s reviews after the jump:

‘Miss Bad Media Karma’ Sings, Too
Published: October 29, 2007/New York Times

“Eat it! Lick it! Snort it!” Such was the legal commentary offered by Britney Spears when she left her latest court hearing on Friday afternoon, as reported by “Access Hollywood.” (Actually there was one more imperative phrase, but it’s not likely to appear in this newspaper.)

It’s starting to seem as if America’s appetite for titillating news about Ms. Spears can be matched only by her ability to supply it. The unworn unmentionables, the bobbled baby, the hewn hair, the umbrella attack, the loose lip-syncing, the benders and fender-benders: We have seen it all. And, notwithstanding all the rather transparent statements of concern and condemnation, we have watched avidly but rather dispassionately. What motivation could possibly be stronger than pure, unimpeded, indefensible curiosity?

Yet there remains one thing we haven’t really seen Ms. Spears do: We generally haven’t seen her in the recording studio, at least not recently. And in that sense, her new album, “Blackout” (Jive/Zomba), arrives in shops tomorrow as something of a mystery. Her face is on the front, and 12 songs — all of which have surfaced online in recent weeks — are listed on the back. But we don’t know much more than that, and (legal commentary aside) she doesn’t seem to be talking.

The album’s first single is “Gimme More,” a nifty little electro-pop song that was swiftly overshadowed by Ms. Spears’s inept pantomime of it at the MTV Video Music Awards in September. “Gimme More” was produced by Danja, a deft protégé of Timbaland who is perfecting his own melancholy, robotic sound. It did pretty well on radio (it hit No. 14 on Billboard’s Pop 100 Airplay chart) and, propelled by hundreds of thousands of paid downloads, reached No. 3 on the main singles chart, the Hot 100.

The album includes four other Danja productions, and “Gimme More” seems to provide the template for virtually the entire CD: The electronic beats and bass lines are as thick as Ms. Spears’s voice is thin, and as the album title suggests, the general mood is bracingly unapologetic. As if to taunt all the voyeurs crying crocodile tears for her children, she delivers almost nothing but slithery come-ons and defiant invitations to nightclub decadence.

If that sounds depressing, then you should hear “Piece of Me,” produced by the Swedish duo of Bloodshy & Avant, the same team that produced her 2003 song “Toxic.” Introduced by a sludgy bass line, Ms. Spears waxes defensive, in a heavily synthesized voice that’s the main (and sometimes only) instrument: “I’m Miss Bad-Media-Karma, another day another drama/Guess I can’t see the harm in working and being a mama.”

Over and over comes a refrain — “You want a piece of me” — that could be an accusation or an invitation or a threat. And the producers set upon her like ravenous fans, building her up (by dropping out the bass line) and then knocking her around (by shifting her pitch). Together they evoke the horror, the exhilaration and (finally) the boredom of the overexamined life. It’s brilliant.

Some of the other songs are nearly as good. (The rave-inspired flirtation “Break the Ice”; the giddy love song “Heaven on Earth,” a collaboration with the indie-electro duo Freescha.) And even the awful ones — like “Ooh Ooh Baby,” with its brain-battering refrain of “Babe-eh, babe-eh, babe-eh, babe-eh, babe-eh, babe-eh, babe-eh” — are cleverly produced. Ms. Spears wisely avoids ballads, although the album ends, rather abruptly, with a breakup song called, “Why Should I Be Sad,” which should make listeners grateful for the album that Ms. Spears might have made, but didn’t.

Ms. Spears has been a fierce presence for most of her career, whether gazing disconcertingly into the camera lens in David LaChapelle’s baby-girl-chic 1999 Rolling Stone photo spread or slithering around an airplane in the video for “Toxic.” Her breathy voice often hints at urgency, or even violence: “Hit me baby one more time”; “I’m a slave 4 u.” Even when she was being marketed as a clean-cut ex-Mouseketeer, and even when she was touring the country with a microphone that functioned largely as a prop, something about her was intense.

But she cuts a startlingly low profile on “Blackout,” and there are times when it scarcely sounds like a Britney Spears album at all. Even when not buried in electronics, her distinctive singing voice sounds unusually vague, and sometimes it’s hard to be sure it’s hers. It isn’t always. On this album, unlike on previous ones, Ms. Spears isn’t credited with doing any of her own backing vocals. Read the fine print, and you’ll discover an impressive cast of helpers, including T-Pain, Keri Hilson (who sang the recent hit “The Way I Are”) and the Euro-pop star Robyn. In general the parts that sound the most Britney Spears-ish are the whispered introductions and interjections

Earlier albums have arrived complete with effusive, multipage thank-you lists. From “Britney,” her 2001 album: “Mama — thanks for being the best role model in the world. I want to be just like you when I’m older.” (Times have changed.) “Blackout” has no thank-you list at all, which will likely be noted by fans who are already suspicious that this album is really a hastily cobbled-together grab bag. And those same fans will surely notice that someone seems to have run low on photographs of Ms. Spears. The booklet is padded with pictures of empty chairs (two) and stills from the notably slapdash “Gimme More” video (six).

Unlike all the other Britney Spears albums, this one hasn’t been accompanied by the usual avalanche of magazine interviews, talk-show appearances and televised performances. Ms. Spears scarcely lacks for publicity (she remains the paparazzi’s favorite quarry) but she has done almost nothing, in the recording studio or outside it, to convince fans that “Blackout” is really hers, or really her. That doesn’t make it any harder to delight in how good the best songs sound. But that may well make it hard (or impossible) for fans and skeptics to treat this CD as a serious comeback attempt. Ubiquitous, one way or another, for almost a decade, Ms. Spears has finally managed to become a spectral presence — on her own album.

Blackout (2007)
Britney Spears

By Margeaux Watson

The nasty custody battle. The hair-razing meltdown. The trips to rehab. The abysmal VMAs performance. Shall we go on? All of 25-year-old Britney Spears’ recent setbacks suggest that her fifth CD, ominously titled Blackout, would fan the flames of her hot mess of a year. Well, brace yourself for the biggest shock yet: Blackout — a collection of well-produced, thoroughly enjoyable dance songs — may just put this once-celebrated pop star back on top.

Spears has always been a performer who’s valued image over creative output. It’s interesting, then, that periods of introspection — albeit those penned primarily by hired hands — yield Blackout’s finest moments. ”Piece of Me,” produced by Bloodshy & Avant (”Toxic”), is a rump shaker that finds Spears venting: ”I’m Mrs. most likely to get on the TV for slippin’ on the street when getting the groceries/Now, for real, are you kidding me?” Later, on ”Toy Soldier” — another fiery B&A creation, which echoes the sass and substance of ”Soldier” by Destiny’s Child — she blasts ”weak” tomcats (like K-Fed?) to the beat of a lively military drumroll.

For the most part, Spears puts up a brave front by relishing her newfound independence. That is, until a chink in her armor appears on the heavy-hearted closer, ”Why Should I Be Sad.” Produced by the Neptunes and written by Pharrell Williams for Spears, it’s a deeply personal, midtempo groove — the closest thing to a ballad on Blackout — that unfolds like an open letter to her babies’ daddy. ”I sent you to Vegas with a pocket full of paper and with no ultimatums on you/I thought, What could separate us,” she sings. ”But it just seemed that Vegas only brought the playa out of you.”

Of course, we know all too well that Spears has a little playa in her, too. So it’s no surprise that she flaunts her fondness for late-night carousing on fluffy dance tracks. Take the ubiquitous ”Gimme More” or the shameless ”Freakshow” (co-written by Spears), where she coos, ”I’m bout to shake my ass/Snatch that boy so fast/Make dem other bitches mad.” Her seemingly insatiable libido is likewise the driving force behind Blackout’s preponderance of breathy come-ons, such as ”Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” ”Perfect Lover,” and ”Ooh Ooh Baby,” which she also helped to write.

Poetry it’s not. Still, there is something delightfully escapist about Blackout, a perfectly serviceable dance album abundant in the kind of bouncy electro elements that buttressed her hottest hits (”I’m a Slave 4 U,” ”Toxic”). Say what you will about Spears’ personal life, but there’s no denying that the girl knows how to have a good time. B+

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