Album Review

Britney Spears: Femme Fatale (Album Review)

To review a new Britney Spears record, for me, is a bit like asking a crazed pageant mother if she believes her daughter is a star.

Sure, she might have spilled apple juice (or Cheetos, more fittingly) all over her glitz costume, forgotten the steps to her baton routine halfway through the performance and fallen asleep onstage, but in the end, she’s still Miss Grand Supreme in my eyes.

This is what journalists often refer to as “full disclosure.” With all that being said…let’s do this.

Over 12 years after her debut in 1999 and just under three years since her last studio album Circus in 2008, Britney Spears is about to release her seventh studio album on March 29: Femme Fatale.

Femme Fatale is–as some reviewers have already come to call it–Britney’s weirdest, strangest offering yet: The production is unforgivably manic, and the pop star’s vocals are distorted, looped, stuttered and smashed within an inch of recognition.

Yet this is not, as some critics may be quick to jump at suggesting, because Britney doesn’t have the voice for it, but rather the ‘experimental’ intention of the album. As she (or “she,” for the more dubious fans side-eying the legitimacy of the Femme Fatale-era interviews as of late) told Rolling Stone:

I wanted to make a fresh-sounding album for the clubs or something that you play in your car when you’re going out at night that gets you excited but I wanted it to sound different from everything else out right now. I also wanted to experiment with all the different types of music I love which is why you hear a mixture of pop, hip-hop and dance throughout the album. I also really wanted to play with my voice and change up my sound here and there which was really fun.

Accordingly, much of the album takes on Britney’s quintessential bubblegum pop appeal and adds a toughened edge (or a grimier sound, as Dr. Luke described the album to Billboard during the early stages of production.)

No greater example exists than with “Hold It Against Me.”

Still as fresh as the day it premiered, the album’s lead single layers Britney’s sugary sweet vocals atop a rough, throbbing beat for a truly multi-dimensional dance-pop number, including a scorching dubstep breakdown, angelically sung choruses, purrs, growls, moans (“Ow!”) and even the first recorded moment of Accentney on tape (“If I said I want your bo-deh!”).

While underground dance enthusiasts bitched and bemoaned the loss of dubstep to a mainstream audience (not that this is the first time dubstep’s ever infiltrated pop–but it’s certainly the most visible yet), others praised Britney’s tune for being daring, bold and ultimately authentic to her legacy.

“Till The World Ends” also benefits from Brit’s latest foray into a ‘harder’ sound: As I noted in my review of the single for, songwriter/trash-pop temptress Ke$ha has provided Britney with her first true club anthem, complete with slamming synthesizers and fist-pump ready cries capable of being spun at any party or club across the world.

Along with Dr. Luke, the record was (fittingly) co-executive produced by arguably the most legendary pop producer of our time: Max Martin, the same producer responsible for sculpting the Swede-pop perfection of Spears’ 1999 debut album.

Accordingly, the Swedish spirit is alive and well in Britney’s latest record.

“I Wanna Go,” the Martin and Shellback-produced track, is arguably the album’s most instant, replay-ready number; an utter explosion of melody and sound.

In typical Max Martin/Britney Spears collaborative form (“…Baby One More Time,” “If U Seek Amy”), the song tempts a naughtier undertone: In this case, self-exploration. “Shame on me / To need release / Uncontrollably,” Britney moans against the song’s searing Euro-pop synths and rave-happy whistles. She’s having a difficult time keeping her hands above the blankets when the lights go out, but when faced such a thick slice of surging synthesizers, who can blame her?

If “I Wanna Go” doesn’t wind up as a single from Femme Fatale, it will surely go down in the Britney storybooks as the “Toy Soldier” and “Breathe On Me” of the record.

Apart from the pop maestro’s own productions (there are six in total, plus the incredible deluxe edition track “Up ‘N’ Down,” which plays like an homage to early ’90’s Detroit techno of Inner City), there’s the Robyn-esque “How I Roll,” which continues to prove that there’s no greater winning combination than when Britney meets the men of Bloodshy & Avant (“Toxic,” “Piece Of Me”) in the recording studio.

“How I Roll” is a completely and utterly cool production–gliding across a rollicking, gasp-filled bubbly beat as Britney daintily croons about rolling downtown where her posse’s at (no doubt the perfect companion track to an early afternoon Starbucks run!) It’s a breezy, bubbly pop ditty, yet the song’s flawless production gives the song a decidedly left-of-center feel.

The Swede duo’s other offering, the Kylie-esque “Trip To Your Heart,” may well be the sequel to Blackout‘s “Heaven On Earth” (in fact, both were co-written by Nicole Morier) as Spears rides twinkling, pulsating synthesizers. “Trip to your head / Trip to your chest / Trip to your breath,” Brit smoothly coos above the layered electronica beat.

Yet amongst an album of solid smashes, it is “Inside Out,” Brit Brit’s break-up sex ode, that is by far one of the album’s finest standout moments.

For one thing, the actual beat of “Inside Out” truly deserves its own accolades here (if not a small dissertation.) Produced by rising Canadian producer Billboard, the song utilizes one of the winning beats from the producer’s 2009 showcase at a beat battle in Pheonix which took place just before the young producer began skyrocketing to fame with Dr. Luke’s crew.

Almost two years later, the beat still stands light years ahead of contemporary pop production. It’s a genius mixture of 8-bit Nintendo beats and filthy, hip-grinding synthesizers, pumping in and out like a nice, juicy–well, let’s just say it’s the stuff that wet pop dreams are made of.

“SO COME ON, won’t you give me something to remember?” Britney yelps during the chorus as the beat grinds and whines on repeat. It’s a spine-tingling yelp; an engaged yelp–the kind of yelp that screams: “The bitch is back and better than ever.”

Deliciously devious lyricism (“Even though we couldn’t last forever, baby / You know what I want right now”) coupled with clever shout-outs to her past hits (“Hit me one more time, it’s so amazing…”) makes “Inside Out” a stunning new triumph for Spears. The song cannot be played loud enough, and it cannot be repeated long enough–it simply is one of Britney’s finest moments yet.

While its clear that manager Larry Rudolph‘s hyperbolic claim that Femme Fatale would be Britney’s “Ray Of Light album” never did come to fruition (this is, after all, a mostly club-friendly record), it’s in the album’s final moment, “Criminal,” that the acoustic, Kabbalah-steeped mysticism of Madonna‘s early ’00’s career makes a special cameo appearance.

Drifting along across a hypnotic guitar strum and medieval instrumentation (fife and all!), Britney sings–no, truly sings–her way through her guiltless declaration of love for a man with all the wrong intentions. “He is a hustler, he’s no good at all / He is a loser, he’s a bum,” Spears sweetly sings, not unlike Madge’s better acoustic moments from American Life, including “Love Profusion” and “Nothing Fails.”

“Criminal” is truly one of Britney’s shining moments as a vocalist in the past five years, if not for the song’s breathtakingly beautiful, earnestly sung bridge alone. Like “Inside Out,” “Criminal” is not only a stunning highlight of Femme Fatale–it’s one of the better offerings from Britney’s entire discography, and the definition of Matureney.

Though the entire album is truly a series of accomplishments for Spears and company, perhaps one of the more laudable victories of Femme Fatale is that is simply doesn’t sound like an obvious production by either one of its executive producers (aside from their mutual trademark of simply making amazing pop songs). Between all of the grinding dubstep production and strange vocal acrobatics, it’s clear that Dr. Luke and Max Martin pushed their personal boundaries as producers.

Similarly, the producers–both of whom who’ve worked with Spears for several years (Max Martin, her entire career)–have effectively captured the Spearit of a typical Spears production: One listen to “Seal It With A Kiss,” and there’s absolutely zero room for an argument to be made about copy-cat production: It doesn’t sound like Katy Perry. It doesn’t sound like Rihanna. It doesn’t sound like Lady Gaga. It sounds like a Britney Spears song. (An incredible one, at that.)

Yet while the decision to make Martin and Dr. Luke co-executive producers was generally well-received amongst the fan community, not every producer on Femme Fatale was as warmly welcomed. When it was announced back in January that Will.I.Am would be working with Britney back in February, the general response amongst the fan community was fairly universal: “DEAR GOD, NO!”

Mercifully, however–the end product, “Big Fat Bass”–is not the robotic 21st century mess most fans feared it would be. In fact, it’s actually quite catchy. While it’s yet another product of the producer’s penchant for club chatter cliche, “Big Fat Bass” is distinct enough in its oddly skeletal structure and even odder vocals (“For the kick drum, for the kick drum…”) to merit multiple listens. In fact, it’s only when the producer’s instantly recognizable rapping breaks into the speakers halfway through that we can even tell this is a Will.I.Am production.

In the end, as my friend David R. so aptly renamed it, Femme Fatale may well be considered Whiteout.

Thematically and sonically, Femme Fatale is just as dark and cold as Blackout, if not more so: She’s riding shotgun with thieving scumbags (“Criminal”), keeping secrets and telling lies (“Seal It With A Kiss”), cheating (“He About To Lose Me”), lusting for break-up sex (“Inside Out”) and causing drama on the dance floor by messing with all the wrong kind of boys (“Trouble For Me”). By the end of the record, it’s more then perfectly clear that Britney’s been a bad, bad girl.

And yet, the imagery and energy of the campaign remain notably brighter than the dark days of Blackout.

The Femme Fatale album cover, for instance, is almost literally the inverse of Blackout: Wrapped in a feathery boa, she stares out at us from a blindingly white background. But instead of the dead eyes and black locks of Blackout (and the all too plastic pin-up model quality of the Circus cover), there’s life here beneath the tousled blonde hair and gorgeous brown eyes–she’s sexy and smoldering, yet seconds away from breaking into a playful smirk. It’s Britney, bitch.

And as Britney Spears and her personal life remain inextricably linked in the eyes and ears of the listening public, it seems as though even her own private affairs are looking brighter.

Gone are the harrowing days of 2007’s paparazzi scuffles, unflattering photographs and breakdowns on the streets of L.A. in the wee hours of the morning.

Instead, there’s a thick, sturdy wall of security and handlers now built between the public and Britney–an expensive symptom of the impossibly intense media scrutiny she’s faced for her entire career. In the small cracks through that we’re granted, however–the giggling about boyfriend Jason Trawick on On Air With Ryan Seacrest, the paparazzi photos of her smiling with Sean Preston and Jayden James while attending little league games–we get the sense that Britney has, truthfully, reached the happy medium between recording artist, celebrity and human being.

Many of Britney’s greatest critics eagerly hone in on her (assumed) lack of participation in the creative process for the record. Yet despite all the conjecture, there’s no way we’ll actually know what happens inside the studio.

Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, for instance, told the press that Britney was “very hands-on. She had a lot of ideas for me” during the recording sessions for Femme Fatale. But more importantly: Who cares? No other pop artist is so consistently grilled for their artistic integrity more than Britney Spears–from the lip-synching to the lack of co-writing credits on tracks.

The point is this: If you wipe away the pop culture snark and Pitchfork-ian musical elitism–what matters is the music, and Femme Fatale is simply an amazing pop record.

In the end, Femme Fatale is not about the comeback of Britney Spears.

2008’s Circus truly provided that safe, calculated comedown from an era of turbulence–a needed move in the eyes of the public to restore order, yet nonetheless devoid of that much-needed spark of innovation.

This is Britney’s evolution in sound: Femme Fatale is a risk-taking bout of escapist delight that plays evenly from start to finish: it’s bold, sophisticated and frivolous all at the same time–the epitome of a modern, cutting-edge pop record. And, as Britney might like to add, it’s both fun and cool.

Armed with twelve solid songs that could each easily make a case for being her next smash hit single, Femme Fatale stays true to the icon that we first fell in love with in 1999–the Holy Spearit, if you will–yet manages to smartly, perfectly update her sound and look to the logical next step in the living legend’s career.

This is the pop album of 2011. This is Adultney.

Please enjoy this full stream of Femme Fatale, courtesy of Jive Records:

Femme Fatale will be released on March 29. (iTunes)