Britney Spears is now so high-concept, such a distillation of what made pop singers like Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson and Madonna so fabulously marketable, that her third record, Britney, is a concept album about herself. She's "Overprotected." She's "Lonely." She's "Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman." Britney just wants to be Britney, this self-reflexive CD reasons, even as everyone around her is feverishly constructing "Britney" the product.
Just as Abdul was a choreographer who sang and Madonna is a performance artist who makes music, this former Mouseketeer is a nice actress playing the part of a bubblegum icon intent on being teasingly naughty. Never has a female star courted the preteen and trench-coat crowds so simultaneously and shamelessly. Although she at first appeared to be choking back psychological pain while executing coy dance moves and signature guttural gasps, Spears now seems like she's in on and enjoying the joke scripted for her. And just as Janet Jackson claimed Control while aspiring to adulthood, Spears aches to put her own authorial stamp on the "Britney" story. Despite Britney's five co-songwriting credits, her music is ultimately driven by producers who must work around her vocal limitations. But an identity is now asserting itself: Britney is by far her most personable album, the most consistently playful and the least wince-inducing. Producer Rodney Jerkins' hip-hop blaspheming of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" doesn't go as far as it should (is a Limp Bizkit remix in its future?), but it certainly beats what her earlier studio architects did to those Sonny and Cher and Stones songs.
Although they're not the album's most melodious cuts, the Neptunes' "I'm a Slave 4 U" and "Boys" could be Britney's most important. This ultra-hot hip-hop duo feeds Prince's girl group Vanity 6 ("Nasty Girl"), Rick James' female foursome the Mary Jane Girls ("Boys"), and Jam and Lewis' pivotal Janet production ("Nasty") into their own studio machine. The resulting montage of 1980s-R&B male fantasies clings bizarrely close to its sources while feeding Spears avant-soul beats designed to carry her into twenty-first-century urban adulthood. It works: The "get it, get it" chant of "Slave" delivers classic "Britney"-ness, while "Boys" whips out a surprisingly tuneful bridge that dramatically rescues an estrogen-dripping but otherwise negligible song.
Swedish teen-pop pioneer Max Martin and partner Rami reunite for tracks that link the international, kid-friendly sound of Spears' previous album, Oops! . . . I Did It Again, to her recent American R&B update. "Overprotected," "Cinderella" and "Bombastic Love" bear the expected monster choruses, familiar modulations and emotionally impulsive lyrical themes. Yet their grooves are sharper and their arrangements have more sonic twinkle. Once you get beyond its cringeworthy title, "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman" supplies the weighty ballad Spears has craved and can now handle. Co-written by Dido, Martin and Rami, the track ruminates with sophisticated chords that complement the prefab sleaze and calculated rebellion elsewhere on the album.
Jerkins' other productions, "Lonely" and "Let Me Be," improve upon his previous contributions to the teen-pop canon (Spice Girls, 'NSync). He is compositionally teamed with Josh Schwartz and Brian Kierulf, unheralded third-tier teen-pop producers (Aaron Carter, LFO, 2gether) who here transcend their filler-supplying status, particularly with the tracks they produce themselves. Spears usually puts on her cutesy, ironic "Material Girl" actor voice when she's not channeling understated Janet bravado, but on "Anticipating," a euphoric Rick Astley flashback, and "That's Where You Take Me," a sincere electro-ballad, she emotes without framing her vocals in Nickelodeon-schooled theatricality. Sugary and sparkly in a great way, these are the unexpected baubles that make the album more than a sonic Spears infomercial.
Still, Britney belabors the obvious: Spears is one month away from entering her twenties and clearly needs to grow up if she's going to bring her fans along. Her Lolita shtick is nearly past its expiration date, and the growing pains presented throughout the album too often come across as contrived. While she's envisioning herself as a renegade fairy-tale princess, other gals her age are contemplating college majors, contraception and motherhood. America itself has aged abruptly over the past two months, perhaps too quickly for "Britney," Britney or even Britney. Time will tell whether any of her incarnations remain relevant in an era that's suddenly not that innocent.