Review Summary: 1. Write album about personal feels
2. Hire will.i.am as executive producer
4. Move to Vegas
In the 2013 fall of pop monoliths who would be queen, it’s a bit disconcerting that the most veteran among them would be content to close out the year with a whimper instead of a bang. Britney Jean
can’t match the radio ubiquity of Katy Perry’s Prism
or the predictable tryhard of Gaga’s Artpop
, and it’s been outclassed in both the shock-and-awe and innovative hooks departments by Miley Cyrus and Lorde, respectively. Its single, by-the-numbers EDM club banger “Work B
itch,” is about as generic as its title suggests, espousing a lunch pail philosophy to pop music that isn’t too far removed from Spears’ longstanding ethos of entertainment first, but it provides that entertainment perfunctorily, with gloves on and a clinical attention to detail. The song is fine, eminently listenable, and will get the nighttime masses bouncing, but it is, unlike so many of Spears’ past hits, utterly forgettable. It’s Spears the pop surgeon, not someone who wants to make you f
As the last in Spears’ five-album commitment to RCA, Britney Jean
is an effort that gives off a more overpowering stench of contractual obligation than any other record this year, with the possible exception of fellow labelmates the Strokes. There are, of course, the requisite pressers propping this up as her “most personal album to date,” and every song here features a Spears co-writing credit, but it doesn’t take long to view Britney Jean
as a toss-off before the holiday shopping season. Will.i.am, who produced the majority of the tracks here, is an easy target – previously the producer of perhaps the worst Britney track committed to tape (Femme Fatale’s
“Big Fat Bass” – will.i.am has a gift for song titles, as well), he sets off to make Britney Jean
the most dated mainstream pop album of the year, and largely succeeds.
introduced dubstep to the pop mainstream, however awkwardly, with “Hold It Against Me,” and previous albums Blackout
(2007) and Circus
(2008) were progressive dance-pop albums in their own right. Producers like Bloodshy & Avant and Danja found the perfect match to Spears’ physicality, pairing her with liquid beats and ingenious sound collages that drew out the lascivious force in Spears’ voice, always her most defining asset and the key to an otherwise lackluster vocal presence. Britney Jean
almost completely abandons any pretense of breaking musical ground, instead wrapping itself in microwaved Dutch house that would have sounded old-fashioned two years ago and splicing in guest spots that feel like will.i.am simply called in whoever happened to be working in another part of the studio that day. Songs like “Til It’s Gone” and “It Should Be Easy” sound musty and trite, the buildups as recycled as the lyrics, while a track like “Tik Tik Boom” makes the cardinal sin of burying Spears’ considerable personality under a prefab dubstep breakdown and a T.I. cameo that, while certainly the most faceless, isn’t even the worst spot on the album. That would be Spears’ sister Jamie Lynn, who features in a duet on “Chillin’ With You” that is almost meta in its banal celebration of sisterly love amid a country-rap (!) breakdown. It’s absolutely bizarre, the only thing preventing it from becoming yet another throwaway track on an album full of them.
There are glimpses of the album Britney Jean
could have been, however faint. “Alien” is another in a long list of excellent Spears mid-tempo pop numbers with an oddball bent, its folksy electronic textures a pleasant, if misleading, curveball opener. Diplo provides a needed assist with the beat to “Passenger,” but that song is undermined by Spears’ submissive lyrics: “I’ll let you lead the way now / cause I want you to take the wheel / I’ve never been a passenger though / I never knew how good it could feel.” Spears should be the dominating one here, the force of her personality and that voracious hunger that powers her best songs pushing and pulling; not being led, like a bad Prism
B-side. At a mere thirty-six minutes, it’s not a stretch to see Britney Jean
as a half-baked effort, more of a commitment to be completed and shipped off than the labor of love it was touted as. Spears goes off to Vegas now, on a two-year residency that seems more like Spears waving the white flag at the rest of the music industry than any real career plan. It’s a shame – at the top of her game, few could make pop music as vibrant and unrepentantly physical as Spears did. Perhaps what she needs is what she’ll hopefully be getting, a few years off from the grind to reconnect with the music on a more primal level and to catch up with a rapidly advancing curve. If not, Britney Jean
should stand less as her swan song and more as an unfortunate postscript, Spears leaving as she arrived: familiar, controlled, and overwhelmingly unremarkable.