Over the course of her 15-year career, Britney Spears has worked with more producers and songwriters than there are stars in the sky, but three names have been integral to her evolution from potential TRL casualty to the sort of mainstay who can headline an upcoming two-year Las Vegas residency: Max Martin, whose name has been nearly synonymous with Spears’ (and a host of other pop superstars) since her 1998 breakout “Baby One More Time” and right up through 2011’s Femme Fatale; Bloodshy & Avant, who helped usher Spears out of the aging teen-pop ghetto and into the dance-music pantheon with In The Zone and especially Blackout, which is generally considered Spears’ redefining work; and Dr. Luke, who’s kept the fires burning in the post-Blackout era. So it’s a bad sign that the credits for Spears’ newest album, Britney Jean, list none of those names, and are headed up by a man who’s previously worked with Spears on two songs, both among her worst.
If Will.i.am is the totem of the next phase in Spears’ career, it’s going to be a dark, or rather beige-colored, era—and not even the sparkly beige of the glitter-nude bodysuit Spears wore at the 2000 VMAs. Will.i.am’s sole contribution to Femme Fatale, “Big Fat Bass,” was a lobotomized non-starter, and the less said about the Spears duet from his solo album, “Scream & Shout,” the better. For whatever reason, though, Spears seems to have taken a shine to the onetime Black Eyed Pea, enlisting him to executive-produce Britney Jean, which also lists him as co-producer on seven of its 10 songs. The album’s scant 36-minute runtime—two to three songs below Spears’ standard output—is a strong enough indicator of the “eh, that’s good enough” ethic on display here, and the songs underline that more often than not. While Spears has called Britney Jean her most personal album ever, and takes co-writing credit on every song—neither distinction is an unusual or even particularly telling action in the pop realm—the majority of the album would be utterly generic were it not for Spears’ signature vocal style and the occasional detail that could be applied to Spears’ personal life, or the personal life of anyone listening. Tellingly, the most “personal” detail evidenced on Britney Jean comes on the numbing country-“rap”-with-quotation-marks ballad “Chillin’ With You,” where the listener learns that Spears prefers red wine, while her duet partner, her younger sister Jamie Lynn, prefers white. Seriously.
The inclusion of Jamie Lynn is indicative of the unimaginative-bordering-on-trolling approach Britney Jean takes to its roster of guest stars, which also includes an obligatory Auto-Tuned Will.i.am on “It Should Be Easy,” and a T.I. appearance on the dubstep sex jam “Tik Tik Boom,” both of which seem to be ported in from late 2009. Thankfully, “Chillin’” is the album’s low point, and comes buried toward the end of Britney Jean, which front-loads its three best songs before marking time until the album’s premature conclusion. Seemingly picking up where Femme Fatale’s folk-laced closer “Criminal” left off, Britney Jean opens with an intriguing folktronica departure, “Alien,” co-produced by William Orbit. The opener is a reaffirmation that Spears is often at her best on her rare mid-tempo jams, and that when she wants to, she can sing actual notes rather than defaulting to her preferred robo-coo—which she immediately does on the next track, divisive single “Work Bitch.”
If nothing else, “Work Bitch” is an indication that Spears is aware where her bread is increasingly buttered these days, but it also has an abundance of something that Britney Jean is far too lacking in: attitude. Spears’ strength as a vocalist rests not in her power, her phrasing, and especially not in her pronunciation—it rests in her characterization, the singular, love-it-or-hate it presence she brings to the word cloud masquerading as lyrics on “Work Bitch.” She pivots into another familiar Spears character—the wounded ingénue—in album highlight “Perfume,” whose co-writing credit from Sia Furler is apparent in both its (relatively) well-developed conceit and its genuine-seeming vulnerability, something Spears is much better at than most of her collaborators usually to give her credit for. That’s apparent again in “Passenger,” which enlists Katy Perry as a co-writer and Diplo as producer for a song that could easily be mistaken for a cover of a lost Katy Perry single.
But far too much of Britney Jean defaults to EDM-by-numbers and the numbing lyrical repetitiveness that appears to be Will.i.am’s calling card. Spears’ strength—like most of those who assume the mantle of “performer” rather than “artist”—has always been her plasticity, the way she can bend and mold to fit the vision of the songwriters and producers who have driven her career. But with Will.i.am, she’s put herself in the hands of a graceless, unimaginative puppetmaster who would rather string her through the same routine over and over than seek out her more nuanced charms.