Britney Spears: Femme Fatale (Jive)
Verdict: Britney vamps it up
Who would want to be Britney Spears? Hailed as the future of pop when her debut single Baby One More Time helped her become the world’s biggest-selling teenager 12 years ago, her fortunes have dipped since with a troubled transition into adulthood.
Her once-glittering career has been overshadowed by a messy divorce, rehab, custody battles and a bizarre episode in which she shaved off her hair with electric clippers. Even 2009’s superbly-choreographed UK arena tour The Circus was dogged by allegations of lip-synching.
Like her former rival Christina Aguilera, the one-time gymslip diva has also had to contend with the emergence of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna — a brash new wave of female performers who have made their mark while seemingly exercising far more creative control.
But Spears, 29, is nothing if not game. Even at the height of her teeny-bop fame, the Mississippi-born singer, whose squeaky-clean image was always a little too good to be true, was eager to embrace a funkier, more mature sound, something she finally managed with 2007’s R&B-influenced Blackout.
Now, with seventh studio album Femme Fatale, she is taking things a step further. Two years in the making, this is her party record: an electro-charged, virtually ballad-free whirlwind that repositions her as a dancefloor vamp without abandoning her forte for simple, enjoyable pop.
If the suspicion remains that Britney is something of a show-pony who is only as good as the songwriters and producers she works with, then at least her celebrity puts her in a position to demand the best. That is the case here, with much of Femme Fatale helmed by Max Martin and Dr Luke, two of the world’s most consistent hit-makers.
Among the others to assist are Will.I.Am, of the Black Eyed Peas, Swedish pop alchemist Bloodshy, and Fraser T. Smith, a 40-year-old British producer whose unusual CV has seen him develop into one of the hottest names in urban music after beginning his career as the guitarist in veteran prog-rocker Rick Wakeman’s touring band.
Femme Fatale isn’t an outright triumph. Britney’s natural voice, thanks to her Southern roots, has an appealing, homespun twang.
Here, it is so distorted by auto-tune and other pieces of studio trickery that its distinctive, raspy quality has all but vanished. Spears might not be able to showboat in the manner of Aguilera or Beyoncé, but she has a stronger vocal signature than she displays here. Some of the lyrics, too, are embarrassing. In trying to compete with pop’s other good-girls-gone-bad, Britney delivers some cringe-inducing double entendres.
‘If I said I wanted your body, would you hold it against me?’ she coos on Hold It Against Me. Groucho Marx and the Bellamy Brothers have a lot to answer for.
But there are plenty of positives. Recent single Till The World Ends is catchy and infectious, its syncopated hooks typical of its co-writer, Ke$ha.
Elsewhere, Madonna’s Confessions On A Dance Floor provides an obvious template for the synth-driven Inside Out.
Considering that Spears has declared herself a huge fan of the Black Eyed Peas, Will.I.Am’s Big Fat Bass is a big fat disappointment. Opening with the title phrase repeated over and over again, it is a characterless, Euro-influenced club workout that even her producer’s animated rap fails to salvage.
How I Roll and Trip To Your Heart, both produced by Bloodshy, are better — the first a stripped-down techno number, the second a swooning electro-pop track — while the Fraser T. Smith-produced Trouble For Me also stands out.
Just where this leaves Britney remains to be seen. Her singles no longer storm into the upper reaches of the charts, but she is a trouper who can still fill the world’s biggest arenas despite those lingering doubts as to the authenticity of her live vocals.
With so many of her original peers having stumbled, Femme Fatale at least keeps Spears in the reckoning. In heading so determinedly for the dance floor, she has freshened up her sound. The fact that she has also rekindled some of her old pizzazz is a bonus.