Tuesday, December 3, 2013

album review: 'britney jean' by britney spears

Throughout this year, I've gone on at great length regarding scope for certain acts, knowing one's limits and how to position an artistic work with respect to those limits. A bit of an odd topic, I'll admit, but it holds a surprising amount of relevance when it comes to pop music, and over the past few years, I've found that the best pop albums come from artists knowing their limits and pushing towards them, or even finding ways to extend them. And hell, even serviceable pop albums can be made by staying within those limits and carefully fine-tuning the little details. But if the artist or their handlers don't know these limits, sometimes you can run into serious trouble and the mainstream audience isn't quite as ignorant as some record executives think they are.

Take, for instance, Katy Perry's Prism. Now, I wasn't particularly kind to that album: the lack of strong hooks, the instrumentation cribbed from a half-dozen better acts, and the occasionally inexplicably bad songwriting were bad enough, but looking, my biggest issues were that Katy Perry was trying to make an album with more resonant emotional depth, and she didn't quite have the songwriting skill or emotional range to pull it off. Let's face it, Katy Perry has two modes where she's solid as a performer: enthusiastic sex kitten and on the verge of emotional collapse. Outside of those modes, she either comes across as obnoxious or aggressively bland, and writing semi-spiritual songs just didn't sound natural for her. 

But perhaps I should have been grateful, because when I heard that the newest album from Britney Spears would be her most 'personal album to date', I steeled myself for the worst. Look, I've never been the biggest fan of Miss Spears over her decade long career, but I'll acknowledge she has put out some good, possibly even great songs - but 'depth' and 'personality' have never been a part of her vocabulary or arsenal. While Katy Perry can at least say she has two modes of performance, Britney Spears arguably has one: cooing sex kitten. The fact that her songwriters and handlers slammed her into this role at an incredibly young age and were incredibly poor at managing the fallout of it throughout the mid-2000s really does make me feel sorry for her, and the fact that so much of her career and life has become a walking spectacle beyond her control is kind of heartbreaking. But I'm a music critic and I put aside Miley's baggage when I reviewed Bangerz, and when I go back through Britney's discography... look, it's a miracle her career lasted as long as it did. Her albums have never received critical acclaim or have ever been cohesive, she's not a great singer on record or live, and her songwriters made the choice long ago that all she should sing about is sex. And when she sticks to that mold, she can be enjoyable.

But, to be fair, the few points where vulnerable elements of Britney's personality have shone through have been good moments: hell, her song 'Lucky' probably remains my favourite of her hits simply because of how eerily prophetic it turned out to be, and that wasn't a sex jam at all. So maybe I misjudged Britney, and I gave her newest album a listen: how did it go?

It went badly. Let's make this clear because the less time I have to spend talking about this mess of an album, the better: Britney Spears' Britney Jean is bad, plain and simple. In a year where a lot of solo female pop acts dropped albums, this might be one of the worst ones, only a few shades above Selena Gomez's trainwreck. What's bizarre, though, is that it's the kind of album that tries to change Britney's image to fit the material - and man, does it backfire, which is rather startling because this is Britney's eighth album. You'd think that the formula would be well-established by now!

Let's start with any limited good qualities I can muster. Well... for the most part, you can tell Britney is really trying. You can tell that she's trying to expand her vocal range and personality to stretch beyond the cooing sex jams that she's best at, and there are moments where you can tell she's really trying to show a fair amount of emotion in her voice. For this, she moves more into her deeper register and tries to deliver a more soulful delivery - and you know, there are brief moments where it could have worked.

Unfortunately, none of it does - and believe it or not, I don't blame Britney for all of the myriad reasons this album goes horribly wrong. No, I can lay all the blame at the feet of the executive producer of this album: will.i.am. For those of you who haven't been following this series, the former frontman and songwriter of the Black Eyed Peas has arguably been the most toxic and worthless contributor to music as a whole this year, simultaneously releasing the worst album I heard this year with #willpower, cratering Ke$ha's forward momentum with his horrendous verse on 'Crazy Kids', and now thoroughly misunderstanding how to make an album for Britney Spears on Britney Jean. Nearly every bad decision in production and instrumentation made on this album I can blame on will.i.am, who at this point the music industry and public at large have to be realizing this guy is absolute poison!

Let's start with production, shall we? It's clean and completely sterile and devoid of any texture, but this is pop music and you can get away with that - less excusable are the choices to peel away some of the overdubbing on Britney's voice (which she needs because normally her vocals are fairly thin) and center her primarily in the mix. And when you have a force of vocal personality like Ke$ha or Lady Gaga or Adele or any R&B belter where you want to focus on the singer, that's fine - but when you have Britney Spears trying (and mostly failing) to carry the tone with only these minimalistic and painfully generic electronica elements supporting her, the album suffers. And that's not counting the times that Britney's voice is covered in enough autotune to make her unrecognizable (the Siri comparison has already been made by some angry fans) or simply overtaken in the mix altogether. And since the Autotune never seems to augment Britney's personality, it makes what was planned to be her most personal album to date sound like one of her most distant.

And as for the instrumentation... well, while some of the brief moments of acoustic instrumentation are appreciated (and her duet with her sister Jamie Lynn does enough to salvage that song - also, Jamie Lynn is actually a pretty solid and unique singer, that country debut might be promising after all), none of it is allowed to gain any personality or swell, because whenever a good moment or any sort of ambiance is growing, will.i.am slams an electronic backbeat into the track and tries to make it danceable - often with disastrous results. The one that leaps to mind is 'Body Ache', which isn't even really trying to be much besides a dance track, but then it's fitted with this atonal beat that completely slaughters the momentum! Will.i.am, you're supposed to be good at this, how in the Nine Hells did you forget the basic principles of crescendo and payoff in dance music!

But even with that, it all has to come back to the lyrics... and look, you can tell Britney was trying here. You can tell she wanted to make this album feel more personal, and on a few of her bonus tracks, she comes close. Sure, it's painfully generic at best and nothing lyrically I haven't heard done a dozen times before, but it's passable. But the more you listen to this album, the more you realize that the 'personal touches' Britney is adding to this album only make it sound relevant to Britney herself. 'Work Bitch' might be Britney's anthem to work ethic, but she can only frame the entire song in the terms of the success she's had - let's be honest here, some people will work their asses off their whole lives, and they won't get the sports cars or wine in France the way Britney has. Then there's 'Perfume', where she tries to come across as upset that she knows her boyfriend is seeing someone else, but odd lyrical choices and Britney's limited range don't exactly make Britney sound all that displeased her boyfriend is cheating - hell, she sounds almost titillated. And then you have songs like 'Passenger' which sound completely disingenuous given Britney's history - look Britney, you can't sell me on lyrics like 'I've never been a passenger, though' when you've effectively been one in your career and life for over the past decade! And even that's not touching on the worst lyrics of songs like 'Tik Tik Boom' - honestly, if that song was meant to sound hot, the spastic beat, the asinine lyrics, and one of the worst verses T.I. has ever put on record certainly don't redeem it!

In the end, though, this album fails most because it doesn't understand the working formula that has somehow managed to sustain Britney's career for several years past its expected length. It doesn't play to Britney's strengths, and only seems to emphasize her weaknesses as an artist, and when her instrumentation sounds as lifeless and outdated as it does here, not even carrying the heavier bombast or retro-disco revival groove that were the hallmarks of 2013 pop, the album really suffers. If you're inclined to get this album by this review, go for the bonus disk (those three tracks at least are passable, although 'Now That I Found You' wants to be Avicii's 'Wake Me Up!' so hard it's pathetic), but Britney's done better and this album is one of her weak ones. At least Blackout had 'Break The Ice' - this album doesn't even have the spark and flare to rise as high as that near-disastrous release! It's a 3/10, only salvaged from a lower ranking by the fact that it was so bland and monotonous to not really offend me.

And look, Britney, last year you made an estimated $58 million dollars, and even if you only kept ten percent of it, you should have enough from royalties that you don't have to do this anymore. Maybe give your little sister a chance: I like her voice, and 'How Could I Want More' wasn't a bad country song at all. So maybe you need to take a bit of a break, Britney - stick with your hits, spend time with your kids, don't let greedy producers bankroll their careers off of your hard work.

And will.i.am, I have only one thing to say to you... GO AWAY.


  1. A coworker recently said something that made me think of Britney Spears. She said someone told her, "Vegas is where musical careers go to die." In these terms, I think you are absolutely correct that Britney (and her fans across the spectrum) should stick to her hits. Although I don't think anyone but Britney could have pulled off the single Work Bitch (other than perhaps Madonna), it's a song the public could have done without. She should just remain a Vegas act. Also your comment on the song Passanger, absolutely spot on. I laughed.

  2. I really feel like you were wayyyy to harsh on this album ... like chillin with you, dont cry, and it should be easy were terrible, but the rest of the tracks made up for it ... It didnt deserve 3/10 stars that's ridiculous, thats like a rating for a paris hilton or kevin federline album not britney ... If art pop gets a 7 theres no way in shit BJ should have anything lower than a 5, personally Id give it a 8