After Britney Spears’s well-hyped but tragicomic return to the MTV Video Music Awards last month, ruminations on her new album were bleak. It’s difficult to divorce a prospective minimal-pop gem (“Gimme More”) from an artist’s shambly performance, not to mention current tabloid escapades.
But since Blackout first leaked in mid-October, prompting an earlier release date, the album has received a surprising number of positive reviews and hit No. 1 on both European and U.S. pop charts. And it’s not just the devoted or the delusional making Blackout a success; Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, and Rolling Stone three-and-a-half stars.
The album is more or less the expected progression from 2003’s In the Zone: slick production now generously heaped on, with more tracks mixed by Bloodshy & Avant (the duo behind karaoke-wonder “Toxic”) and Timbaland-protégé Nate “Danja” Hills. In the past four years, Spears has acquired more public and personal drama for lyrical fodder, although Blackout denotes less co-writing credit. In terms of message, it’s as if the past four years – the Kevin Federline marriage, the babies, the head-shaving – didn’t even happen. Blackout may be the wizened older sister of In the Zone, but that doesn’t mean it likes to party any less. And if its aim is solely to be a club-friendly dance album, the fact that the lyrical content isn’t Pulitzer-inspiring is negligible.
There’s one obviously Federline-centric track (“Why Should I Be Sad”: “I sent you to Vegas with a pocket full of paper / And put no ultimatums on you / . Only brought the player out of you”) disguised as a slinky closing jam, and some too-confident, too-awkward rapping about the same on “Toy Soldier.” But other than that, Spears seems to be looking toward a future of living single, and some of this shit is more boastful than a Kanye album, the lyrics equally abysmal. “Hot As Ice,” with its laser-tag production effects and the brooding “Break the Ice,” are both about Spears’s “making you feel hot-hot-hot-hot” and how she’s “cold as fire / hot as ice.” Her new man-hunting confidence is especially heavy on the swishy “Radar,” where it sounds like Bloodshy & Avant have been listening to a lot of Rihanna. The duo drops “Tainted Love”-style metallic raindrops into multi-tracked vocals and fits of rising synthesizer. In accompaniment, Spears lets her subject know he’s “on her radar” in a voice so aggressive it’s almost threatening – but counters with childish da-da-das in the outro.
What elevates most of these tracks is their finish. Somehow, the producers manage to transform most of the so-so songwriting into potential club staples. Take the Danja-helmed “Get Naked (I Got a Plan).” It’s overproduced, though not as slick as a Timbaland creation, but it still gives the track the necessary oomph. Danja’s guest vocal slurs into a bizarre Sesame Street Count/Barry White exaggeration, leering, “I got a plan we can do it / Just when you want it baby, baby, baby” over cut-up keyboard. Spears chants “get naked, get naked” and “take it off,” pushing her voice through a few throaty assertions of her beauty. After three minutes, Danja drops a few of the digital walls and makes the mistake of letting Spears’s lead vocals ride over the top. Here, her voice sounds naked and thin (which it is), and it’s jarring after being lubed up with so much Autotune pitch corrector on earlier tracks like “Piece of Me.”
The singer’s voice pops out solo at later points too, like on the frothy “Ooh Ooh Baby,” and while such moments are set up in a way to showcase her questionable vocal abilities, they come off as neglect by the producers to smooth things over.
In the fall of 2004, shortly after Spears married Federline, The New York Times published Kelefa Sanneh’s treatise on pop prejudice, “The Rap Against Rockism.”
Rockism, the critic explained, “means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”
And while rock bands record classics, “pop stars create ‘guilty pleasure’ singles.”
Although Sanneh does not refer to Spears at any point in his defense of pop music (poptimism, as people call it), she, with In the Zone and now Blackout, is a perfect case for the rockism versus poptimism debate. Yes, she may lip-synch, she may spend millions on music videos and live shows, and she certainly has her problems. (Spears sings at one point on “Get Naked,” “I’m crazy as a motherfucker,” which, at this point, seems unnecessary to admit). But for all that drama, with the right production she can still turn out a pretty decent pop album. When she nails that sultry Debbie Harry purr on “Heaven On Earth,” laundry listing “your touch / your taste / your breath / your face / . / you’re fine / you’re heaven on earth” over a dribbly electronic layer cake of an introduction, it’s impossible not to enjoy it. Blackout isn’t a revelation, but its points of pleasure are guilt-free.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars