November 27, 2013
Britney Spears, ‘Britney Jean’ (Album Review)
Britney Jean is Britney’s “Most Personal Album Ever,” so this review is about to get a little more personal (raw) — it’s not just blind standom. People can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your truth. But the question is…can you handle mine?
The one opinion I’ve consistently held when it comes to pop music over the past 15 years — the reason why there’s been a “Daily B” on this website for over 6 years, the reason why I’ve got posters and albums and tour T-shirts and perfumes scattered all over my home, the reason why I’m so hopelessly obsessed to the point of frequent embarrassment — is that Britney Spears has never delivered anything less than pop perfection when it comes to her music.
From …Baby One More Time (call me when you hear a better pop song in 2013 than “Born To Make You Happy”) to Femme Fatale — even through her darkest hours of her personal life (Blackout) — Britney has supplied reliably forward-thinking, cutting-edge pop music that leads the pack and keeps her reigning as the greatest pop star of our generation. As the years went by — even when live vocals became a thing of the past, even when the choreography slowed down to hair flips and armography, and even when she became visibly bored and resentful in interviews and fan meet-and-greets, it didn’t matter. We always had the music.
For the first time in her career, Britney has released an album that is just okay — by her standard, anyway.
The hype for Album 8 started well over a year ago, right about when Britney took notice of a trending topic on Twitter last Halloween. “Blackout 2.0?” she teased. By now, her team’s heard it loud and clear: Britney’s cold, urban 2007 masterpiece Blackout is a fan favorite. The process started off promising as ever: Britney was seen sitting in a recording studio with Darkchild while shooting X Factor. Danja, the Blackout producer himself told me “I think there’s going to be another one.”
All systems go, right? There was just one nagging new addition to the team:
will.i.am, Professional Pop Goblin and Ruiner of Dreams.
There’s a reason will.i.am is will.i.cant: He is a suck-monster of taste. His back catalog is a nightmarish smorgasbord of lowest common denominator pop, relying solely on grating grade school melodies, product placement-packed videos and GarageBand dinky beats.
will.i.am’s reign of terror with Britney began in 2011, with his lame feature on Femme Fatale‘s “Big Fat Bass.” Her voice on that song — stretched into unfamiliar robo-territory — barely resembled the warm, warbly thing that characterizes all of her giant hits. He struck again with “Scream & Shout,” last year’s drunk-pop anthem (a worldwide smash, duh, lest we forget why he got this gig) that allowed the public to get a piece of speak-singing Britishney. Sure, we thought. A feature on will.i.am’s album — that’s fine, we thought.
But then, #ItGotWorse. Way worse. He was named Executive Producer of Album 8 in May.
“Relax!” I said. “He helped Kelis make Flesh Tone!” I said.
Almost as quickly, the strategy for the album changed: Blackout 2.0 was dropped from the conversation, and Personalney quickly became the focus. will.i.am began telling interviewers that he was having “a lot of lunches” with Britney before recording to get a better understanding of what she’d like to write about. So, so many lunches. “Britney and me need to have lunch Four times a month for three months,” he told Rolling Stone. (I’m not sure what kind of unholy feast could lead to “It Should Be Easy” — but well, they ate.)
Promising writers and producers began flooding in as the project opened for submissions: Dev Hynes! Charli XCX! Elijah Blake! Anticipation grew, as it does for any other Britney album. But as the release date drew closer, no one was talking. Nothing was happening. Producers soon began confirming one-by-one that they failed to make the cut. Dev Hynes? Nope. Charli? Nah. Darkchild? Nuh uh. Danja? Nope. Max Martin? Not this time. Bloodshy & Avant? No. Um. So who was on the album, anyway?
Yes, that’s right…will.i.cant.
“They asked me to be involved in, not producing and writing every song, but to be an executive producer on the songs,” he explained to Rolling Stone earlier in the year. And so, he involved himself. Heavily — with production credits on 7 out of the 10 songs. Anthony Preston is involved just as much (if not more), a songwriter from — you guessed it! — will.i.am’s music group.
Still, there was plenty of help from outside the will.i.am world, too: Sia co-wrote three of the tracks (all standouts from the album), club-pop titans David Guetta, Diplo, Nicky Romero and Richard Vission have their brief moments in the sun, The Fr3shmen and Zach “Reazon” Heiligman (who also worked with Foster The People) are in the mix — but in the end, will.i.am overwhelmingly called the shots.
Hearing the album in full for the first time, I initially felt deflated. Forget the fact that “Work Bitch,” “Tik Tik Boom” and “Body Ache” are as personal as a lampshade, that’s not the issue: The issue is that Britney’s actual presence on the album is, at times, questionable.
I’ve spent the past 15 years worshipping at the Altar of Godney. I know what Britney’s voice sounds like. There are moments throughout this record where her voice just doesn’t sound like Britney Spears. “Perfume”? “Brightest Morning Star”? Sure, yes. But songs like “Passenger” — that high note in the second verse? That’s not a Britney note. It’s just not! “It Should Be Easy” is so grossly vocoded, there’s really no point in her even being present in the studio. And “Body Ache,” which was co-penned by her soundalike background singer Myah Marie? Deeply suspect. (Listen to Myah.) Either Brit’s background vocalists have been way over-utilized, or she’s being tempo-shifted beyond recognition.
And these co-writing credits? Hush. Just. Stop. Songwriting credits for Britney on every single song? “Passenger” was written by Katy, Sia and Diplo for PRISM. “Tik Tik Boom” was recorded months ago by GRL. I understand the art of publishing royalties, but since when did Britney suddenly become Beyoncéney?
Since this is all sounding so dramatic (REFERENCE), rest assured: There’s still a lot of goodness on Britney Jean.
For one thing, “Alien” exists. And it’s incredible. The William Orbit-produced opening track is the perfect way to launch Britney Jean (into outer space, as it were), and remains one of the album’s most introspective productions.
Building across sparse, spacey electronica and a stomp similar to Femme Fatale‘s “He About To Lose Me,” “Alien” of the album’s most “vibe”-y moments. It’s the vibe, I think, that most fans were anticipating (REFERENCE). “There was a time I was one of a kind / Lost in a world out of me, myself and I,” she declares. It’s not the first time she’s hinted at feeling lonely (“my loneliness is killing me,” anyone?) Editing glitches aside, the track allows Britney’s sweetly urgent vocals to shine, as she recounts a darker time in life and — it seems — a light at the end of the tunnel. Faith? A special someone? Her fans? It’s you, whoever you are out there. The song sounds like something that could be found on Madonna‘s American Life, blending self-reflection and vague Spearituality with minimal electronica.
The only setback? Orbit (or whichever engineer was in charge of doing the final mastering) warped Britney’s vocals in the chorus of “Alien” (an early version leaked weeks prior, and it’s superior), and in doing so, accidentally sliced her voice at one point. At the 2:14 mark. It actually skips. This is a major mainstream pop release. Mistakes happen, I know. But c’mon — it’s Britney, bitch.
Despite the engineering flop, “Alien” is one of the most interesting songs that Britney’s recorded in a long time — it’s a shame that there isn’t more like this to be found on the album. (“So fire hot, a 20 out of 10,” for the native Godney speakers out there.)
“Work Bitch” comes blaring into the speakers next, and the contrast is jarring: Make no mistake, the song’s still superb. Ignore the fact that she’s sort of afraid to say the word “bitch” in interviews, or that the talking point for this song was that it’s “for the gays” or that she felt uncomfortable shooting the video. (Basically, let’s forget that Britney does not seem to like this song.) It’s still a standout. There are too many juicy Spearitual moments — the pronunciation of “Boo-gatti” and “hot bodeh,” the transcendent “Hold your head high!” bridge, the shark-filled video in the desert — that make it too good to be denied. It’s now a certified Britney classic.
“Perfume” then spritzes into the speakers — another one of the surprises from the Britney Jean era. Hearing Britney sound vulnerable — and even jealous! — is a rare and wondrous thing, which is why “Perfume” is also a highlight. It sounds better as the “Dreaming Mix” on the deluxe edition of Britney Jean, as originally produced by songwriter Chris Braide. (But, you know, since will.i.am couldn’t help himself, he went ahead and slapped on some loud noises of his own for the single version.) Thematically, this is Brit’s most mature ballad in years, and it’s really incredible to hear her lower register being utilized. Not since those Oops! days have we gotten these kinds of vocals!
But the vocal showcase suddenly stops short in the middle: As opposed to Swedish electronica or dub-infused electro-pop, Britney Jean is largely rooted in full-on club sound, a la “Scream & Shout.” There is no boundary-breaking electronica, nor any structural experimentation. It’s just your standard “sick beat drop, bro” EDM affair.
Of all the uptempos, “It Should Be Easy,” the one that features will.i.am, is an utter abomination to Britney’s musical legacy.
It’s not so much that she’s been Auto-Tuned within an inch of her life — that’s worked before as an effect on glitchy cuts like Blackout‘s “Piece Of Me” and In The Zone‘s “Brave New Girl” — but it’s just so undeniably basic; a vapid #willpower serving of Robotney: “You bring me zen / You make me feel like a million, billion,” she flatly declares through the vocoders, with all the enthusiasm of a death row inmate. The song almost borders on parody at one point. “La-da-dee, la-di-da,” she sing-songs through the electronic prison bars. Sure, “Easy” might be mindless fun for the gym while the album’s still fresh, but there’s not even a little bit of Britney’s DNA in this production.
The closest the album comes to bringing Blackout 2.0 to life comes in the form of “Tik Tik Boom” with T.I., which was originally recorded by Robin Antin‘s latest attempt to recreate the magic of the Pussycat Dolls, GRL. The slick #SomethingMoreUrban stomper squeezes Britney back into her “Gimme More” stripper heels and gets her twirling back on the pole: “Talk dirty to me babe, every time I want it,” she urges. T.I. comes in later for a sex-drenched verse of his own (which plays too low in the speakers — engineers, why?) before Britney comes in for one more round. The chorus, in all of its seductive monotone glory (“Tik tik tik tik tik tik tik boom”), provides plenty of room for Twerkney to drop it low — not that she really even wants to be sexy anymore. Still, those final Spearitual runs at the end of the song are like hearing Strongerney come to life all over again: “Ooh, ya-a-a-ah!”
The David Guetta and will.i.am-produced “Body Ache” is okay, assuming that you can get past the fact that it sounds like a mash-up between LMFAO and “Scream & Shout.” (Seriously, that springy dance beat is so cheap.) “Body Ache” is pretty devoid of any signature Britney-isms — any dance diva could be crooning this one, including the song’s co-writers Luciana and Myah Marie. (Speaking of, is that you Myah?) Britney is a pop pioneer, not a trend follower. (A nice shout out to Jordan at BreatheHeavy in the second verse, though!)
“Til It’s Gone” is one of the few times, or maybe the only time, when Britney Jean manages to combine every campaign promise into one song: It’s both meaningful (Personalney) and dance floor-ready (Blackout 2.0), resulting in something that sounds almost as good as Kelis’ Flesh Tone. The vocals are really, really phenomenal — it’s almost like hearing Britney-era Britney peeking through the curtains in 2013, like a continuation of “Before The Goodbye.” But this is an even darker sequel: Sure, it’s about letting go of someone on paper. Or does it actually mean something bigger…like her own freedom? Considering Britney doesn’t even have full legal control of her life (let’s not get into it), the message of the song hits home. Hard.
“I’m blind from the tears that fall like rain, so lost ever since you went away,” she coos off the top of the track. The bridge is especially incredible, even providing a few classic Britney warbles (“Ah-owww!“) at the very beginning that briefly transports us back to the glory days.
“Passenger,” the Sia-Katy offering, is one of the album’s true standouts from the very first second: That skittering, Diplo-produced electronic intro is just the kind of mystical, next-level vibe I was hoping would permeate throughout Britney Jean. And then, it breaks: “It’s hard to jump with no net / But I’ve jumped and got no regret!” Britney cries out above the crunchy guitar-led midtempo — an ode to willingly letting go of the reigns — err, the wheel. There’s a subtle religious touch (hey, Katy Perry did co-write it, after all!), which makes this sound like Britney’s own “Jesus Take The Wheel,” as she forks over the keys to her Louis Vuitton Hummer from the “Do Somethin'” set and allows faith to lead the way. “We’ll see more without a map,” Britney happily coos. It’s not only a beautiful song, but a beautiful message too: In an age of Smartphones and Siri — Britney Jean wants you to throw it all away and get lost in the world together. (I call shotgun!)
But that bliss is short-lived once “Chillin’ With You” arrives, an embarrassing backfire. They’ve kept it in the family (PERSONAL!), by enlisting Spearitual sister and Country Queen Jamie Lynn for a twangy, #SomethingMoreUrban duet called “Chillin’ With You” that could have easily been a Bangerz reject — and with Larry Rudolph at the helm of Miley’s career, it likely is. “When I’m witchu, I’m chillin’, I’m chillin’,” the two trade off across a bubbly beat. Jamie Lynn sounds incredible on her verse (and is, I think, featured on this song even longer than Britney?) “Chillin’ With You” is no more revealing than “Follow Me,” the theme song Britney herself wrote for Jamie Lynn’s Nickelodeon show, Zoey 101, and it’s certainly not any better. Also, the lyrics don’t even really make sense in the context of Britney’s life: “I drank some red wine, and now I’m walking on the sky.” Um, except Britney is sober now. What?
By the half hour mark, the album is already over. “Don’t Cry,” the album’s depressing final track, is to “Perfume” as In The Zone‘s “Shadow” is to “Everytime,” providing a darker kick of angst at the end: Riding in on a lone whistle straight out of an old Western movie, Britney warbles her uncomfortable last goodbye. Lana Del Spears? Well, kinda. The vocals are purely Britney-era, sounding crisp and strong in the verses. “This is gonna be our last goodbye / Our love is gone, but I’ll survive,” B-Girl trembles. “Don’t cry, don’t cry.” It’s hard to believe that she’s trying to convince anyone but herself. Or maybe even her fans: “Pack my bags, can’t take no more / Adios, I’m out the door.” Sorry, but Cinderella’s got to go.
Britney Jean, in a lot of ways, reminds me of a Cheryl Cole album (of which — shocker! — will.i.am has also helmed a few.) Like A Million Lights or Messy Little Raindrops, there are some killer (albeit generic) uptempos, a few schmaltzy ballads and a few ambitious midtempos. But Cheryl — with all due respect to the Girls Aloud legacy — has always felt like a Britney tribute act in my eyes. Britney Jean shouldn’t feel like a Cheryl album, but it does.
The one true triumph of Britney Jean is the vocals — that is, when we’re fairly sure that it’s her singing. That’s clearly her belting on “Perfume” and “Brightest Morning Star,” and that’s her warbling and cooing on “Alien,” “Don’t Cry” and “Til It’s Gone” — it’s a pleasant reminder of that classic Britney sound.
I’m a loyal follower of the Holy Spearit, and this is the latest scripture being added to the Book of Godney. I’m hardwired to love whatever Britney puts out. It’s all I know how to do. Whether it be a grainy “Rebellion” snippet or a classic like “…Baby One More Time” (or even “Soda Pop”), it’s scientifically impossible for me not to wholeheartedly love whatever she records. I love “Alien” and “Passenger” and “Perfume” and “Til It’s Gone.” I will love the rest in time, if only out of religious duty.
That being said, I can stand outside of myself and recognize that this album is only just “okay”: The production is frequently cheap. The EDM tracks will age quickly and poorly. The vocals are occasionally suspicious. But that doesn’t even matter ultimately — the songs just aren’t very good, especially when compared to Britney’s immaculate discography.
I’m not a full-fledged passenger on the Britney Jean Express, and I know that I’m not alone in feeling that way. (Not alone, not alone, not alone…) But don’t cry. I’ll survive: I’m happy for the fans excitedly shouting about how flawless the album is, and I’m happy for Britney too. Contrary to popular Internet belief, being critical of the artist you love doesn’t make you a bad fan — it just makes you a human being. (KILL HIM.)
I just wanted more (MOAH): There were so many ways Britney Jean could have been an incredible statement piece for Britney. 15 years into her career (the same point where Britney’s at now, FYI), Madonna released Ray Of Light. Had Britney Jean‘s production been limited to one or two capable producers like Dev Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid, maybe she could have had a genuine Ray of Lightney moment and emerged with a completely unexpected sound. Or, maybe it could have been Blackout 2.0, with the return of Danja and Keri Hilson to craft more #SomethingMoreUrban smashes like “Gimme More” and build upon the alt-R&B wave bubbling up in music. Or, it could have been a lush synth-pop record that picked up where “Unusual You” and “And Then We Kiss” left off.
But, it’s just not. Britney Jean is chillin’. It’s chillin’. And all of this emphasis on “personal” feels like an intentionally misleading effort to bait fans eager for Britney to really express herself. She’s always had personal tracks — it just wasn’t ever marketed that way. How about Britney‘s “Overprotected” and “Cinderella,” which perfectly encapsulate the way Britney felt growing up inside a bubble as a teenage superstar (and, let’s be honest, probably ring even more true for Britney in 2013)? How about In The Zone‘s “Everytime” and “Shadow,” recorded after her break-up with her first love, Justin? How about Blackout‘s paparazzi-fueled kiss-off “Piece Of Me” or “Why Should I Be Sad?” which fans never seem to talk about, despite the fact that it so clearly details the events leading up to her divorce with K-Fed? And do we even need to bring up the “Brightest Morning Star” Circus predecessor, “My Baby”? “Tiny hands…”
When Britney opens up on the more Spearitual numbers on Britney Jean, that’s when her truth peeks through: “Alien” might be all about feeling lonely “then,” but Britney sounds just as isolated now. And really, who else could feel more like an alien on this Earth than Britney Spears? She’s surpassed mere mortal levels of fame and now orbits in the same Living Legend universe as Michael Jackson once did — no one will ever be able to handle her truth.
To keep herself grounded, she’s seemingly turned to faith: Songs like “Brightest Morning Star,” “Hold On Tight” and “Passenger” find the superstar seeking solace in religion, be it Jesus or her babies, which is undeniably sweet, and yes, personal. And if “Chillin’ With You” is meant to be personal too, then she really just wants to be sitting on a couch with Jamie Lynn somewhere. She probably does! As a person, I’m incredibly happy for Britney. She seems happy. But as a pop star? This is no longer the ringleader calling the shots. This is someone who is perfectly satisfied watching the show from home — and her name is Britney Jean.
As a result, there’s a lingering sense of resignation within Britney Jean: “Don’t Cry” might be a break-up song dedicated to an ex-flame hitting the road, but it plays more like a tear-stained note to self in her Dear Diary. And as for “Til It’s Gone”? “You never know what you got til it’s gone,” Britney warns, seconds before getting swept away in a tidal wave of frantic will.i.am beats. It’s a sentiment that rings morbidly true.
Perhaps Britney took the message of “Passenger” too literally with Britney Jean. Can she have those keys back now?
‘Britney Jean’ will be released on December 3. (iTunes)