Review Summary: If the Britney Spears Story doesn’t quite have the subject’s full attention, it’s at least caught the attention of some people, and the results are inspired.
Let’s drop all pretence for a moment. Let’s not pretend to be outraged by Britney Bitch’s tabloid behaviour; let’s not feign concern for the poor kids who’ve been turned over to the custody of Superdaddy Kevin Federline; and most of all let’s not hold the woman to some unrealistic standard of artistic integrity which she’ll probably never be capable of. Britney’s never been a particularly good writer, she probably can’t sing in key for any extended period of time, but what she does have is character. Britney’s nothing if not distinctive and she has the money to invest in the best songwriters and producers to supplement her own deficiencies. In the past, even that’s not been enough to guarantee a successful album: 2001’s Britney
was barren with the exception of a couple of classic Neptunes singles, and ‘Toxic’ aside, 2003’s In The Zone
suffered from a complete lack of memorable singles. Britney contributed eight co-songwriting credits to In The Zone
; her creative input to Blackout
is minimal- limited to two dubious co-writing credits- but the twelve tracks are by some measure the strongest she’s put her name to.
If lead single ‘Gimme More’- one of five tracks written and produced by Timbaland underling Nate “Danjahandz” Hills- is somewhat of a lethargic introduction/re-introduction (and who could forget that wonderful VMA performance?), it’s at least understandable that her “comeback” single would be one of the few tracks with largely natural-sounding vocals. In fact, Britney is arguably the least important thing about the album; her vocals are processed and robotised almost beyond recognition, and the majority of the backing vocals are handled by guest performers. Her most important role, it seems, was to be the muse for songs like ‘Why Should I Be Sad’ (Pharrell Williams) and ‘Piece of Me’ (Danja, The Clutch)- and again, arguably, she’s a far better muse than she is a songwriter. Think Nico in almost every way, except for the “extremely unlistenable” part.
At just twelve tracks and forty-three minutes, Blackout
is as lean as the singer herself, and nine of those twelve are overseen either by Danja or Swedish pop duo Bloodshy & Avant (of ‘Toxic’ fame.) The result is a fairly coherent overall sound, at least in comparison to In The Zone
. Both production teams loosely follow Timbaland’s club blueprint. Danja apes Tim’s sledgehammer beats and trippy synths with varying degrees of enthusiasm, but his main focus is the vocals, namely making Britney’s sound as little like the old Britney as possible, and supplementing them with as many contrasting voices as possible. The appallingly titled ‘Get Naked (I Got A Plan)’ boasts a chorus only marginally worse than the Tommy Lee/Method of Mayhem hit of the same name; the real star is Danjahandz, who effectively hijacks an unremarkable pop song, placing a reduced-speed ‘Born Slippy’-style soul vocal (courtesy of Corte Ellis) on top of a backing track lifted wholesale from Justin Timberlake’s ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds.’ ‘Break The Ice’ rocks a club siren harder than anybody could have imagined possible in the pre-crunk era, while ‘Perfect Lover’ is perhaps the closest Hills comes to actually highlighting the singer’s natural voice, her airy delivery setting the tone for The Neptunes’ low-key funk closer ‘Why Should I Be Sad.’
Bloodshy & Avant pretty much pick up where ‘Toxic’ left off, albeit with bonus Super Mario samples. ‘Piece of Me’ is the pick of the album’s pop songs, a veritable litany of musical abuse, admonishing just about everybody for just about everything. With lyrics courtesy of Klas Ahlund of Swedish electro-punks Teddybears, and guest vocals from Pitchfork favourite Robyn, Britney sings: “I'm Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous / I'm Mrs. Oh-My-God that Britney's shameless / I'm Mrs. Extra! Extra! This just in... / I'm Mrs. She's too big now she's too thin.”
The track itself could easily be lifted from Robyn’s latest record- the glitchy club-hop particularly reminiscent of her recent US single ‘Handle Me’- and for the most part it’s difficult to actually distinguish the pair’s voices. While it would probably be funnier if Britney had written the track- God knows, she has no shame- it’s still occasionally laugh-out-loud funny; at one point Britney raps, “I'm Mrs. most likely to get on the tv for stripping on the streets while getting the groceries”
- the punchline, presumably, being the idea that Britney gets her own groceries.
‘Freakshow’ is almost as good. The warring vocal lines and hammerhead chorus thump call to mind that forgotten hit ‘SexyBack’ and Britney, remarkably, seems to make for a more convincing rapper than a singer. (Plus, she’s totally believable as a peep show star.) The infectious club ‘Toy Soldier,’ a joint venture between the Swedes and Sean Garrett (of ‘Yeah!’ fame), is even more convincing of Britney’s newfound talent for rhyming. Along with ‘Hot As Ice,’ written and arranged by T-Pain and Danja, it comes as close as anything on the record to comic relief, at least of the intentional sort. These three tracks comprise the strongest portion of Blackout
, both in terms of songwriting and Britney actually sounding interested in being there, but overall the album is consistently strong and evenly balanced between sexy club tracks and sexy pop tracks. Even the sole exception, Pharrell’s self-satisfied ‘Why Should I Be Sad,’ is better than most of the dross Mr. Williams has churned out over the past year or so- if the Britney Spears Story doesn’t quite have the subject’s full attention, it’s at least caught the attention of some people, and the results are inspired. The only question that remains, the rest having been answered, is whether this marks an actual comeback or just an excuse for another party.