Britney Spears's Blackout

Much, much better than you had (justifiably) feared

Britney Spears's title as leader of 1999's teen-pop surge can make you forget that she's never made a good album. She's made singles, but her records have never cohered, which became a problem when 2001's Britney pitched her as a real person: The album pretended at portraiture but was as fractured as the hit collections before it. By 2003's In the Zone, as her contemporaries morphed into singer-songwriters with better guitars, a left-behind Spears sounded more diffuse than ever.

Add the escalating sideshow of her personal life and there was reason to dread Blackout, but Spears's first album in four years dispenses with biography early and well. "Piece of Me" is the best song ever written about Britney Spears (she's not responsible for the words, no, but she's responsible for the way she deadpans, "Oh my God, that Britney's shameless"—and it's wry), and the rest of Blackout benefits from abandoning her disastrous public face: It's forced to focus as it crafts a new one. Spears's writers present her with the goofiest, most vivacious productions she's ever had, filling "Radar" with pinging noises and polishing Madonna's dance-floor trash bright, while Timbaland protégé Danja, soberer, takes the "sensual" tracks—though he fails to save the tumescent, grimy ballad "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" from being the most white-trash sex song ever, and the only track here that sounds as exhausted as Spears must be.

Such tears in the façade make Blackout spotty and occasionally dank, but its good tracks are as infectious and aggressive as anything Spears has recorded (and more numerous—"Hot as Ice," "Toy Soldier," and "Perfect Lover," three gargantuan choruses buoyed upon papery drums, would once have been spread across three albums). And though her soapy hiccup of a voice is as ProTooled as ever, it's not true that it could be yours. Britney-the-singer, once a delivery system for fetishes, is at her most human and collected while Britney-the-person is at her messiest. You're sick of hearing about her, but don't worry. This record isn't about her.

 
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