It’s often hard to justify Britney Spears’ vaunted place in the pop-music landscape when there are so many other similar artists who can sing better, who write (or at least pretend to write) their own songs, and who have more personality. But Spears isn’t an artist; she’s a muse, a vessel top hitmakers use to channel their best work. It’s a strange, indefinable strain of pop alchemy, but it’s been churning out pop-radio gold for more than a decade. On Spears’ seventh album, Femme Fatale, the elements are all aligned for maximum pop potency: simple themes (sex, parties, sexy parties); seasoned producers (Max Martin, Dr. Luke, Benny Blanco, and scads more); well-executed trend-jumping (a lot of spit-and-polished dubstep appropriation); and at the center of it all, Spears’ sexy-robot-kitten coo, which seems more authentic in its blatant artificiality than most of her more discreetly Auto-Tuned peers.
Femme Fatale is frequently big, dumb, and loud in the best possible sense. Inane lyrical premises like those on “(Drop Dead) Beautiful,” “Big Fat Bass,” and “Gasoline” are salvaged by the mightiest of hooks, pummeling the listener into lobotomized musical escapism. But it’s not all dance-floor narcotics: Songs like the dark, slinky “Inside Out,” the hyper-Euro chant-along “Till The World Ends,” and the strange, flute-assisted digression “Criminal” add texture to the wall-to-wall synth waves and booty bass. The album’s most out-there track, the stuttering “How I Roll,” is also its best, as Spears mainstay producers Bloodshy & Avant steer her through a deliciously coy performance over a minimal, handclap-assisted beat. While Spears’ vocals are inevitably the least impressive element of any given song, she doesn’t exactly disappear into the production on Femme Fatale; she settles into it, game for whatever and confident in the hands of trusted professionals who know how to best utilize her.