I haven't felt this uncomfortable about reviewing an album since America's Sweetheart, a record by an artist I thought could have feasibly died within six months of its release. Britney Spears, who could claim that album's title with a bit less irony, isn't exactly a tragic figure yet, but her recent pink-wigged antics have raised red flags about her mental state. Her publicly unfolding personal and legal dramas have garnered her immense support and goodwill, but it's been thus far squandered, and critiquing the unfortunately titled Blackout is not unlike playing analyst. It isn't the music that's particularly revealing (there's plenty of thumping dance beats and heavy breathing—everything we've come to expect from a Britney album), but it's what's missing—from the tracklist, her performances, and her videos—that's most illuminating.
In the weeks leading up to the album's release, most of the songs, along with a second LP's worth of additional tracks, leaked onto the Internet. Two of the scrapped songs—the anguished, autobiographical kiss-offs "Baby Boy" and "Let Go"—begin with sultry, soulful vocals that are at first completely unrecognizable from the squeaky former Mouseketeer we've all come to know and affectionately loathe. It's not Christina Aguilera but it's a pretty damn good facsimile. These demos don't just humanize Britney, they make a case for what vocal ability and songwriting skills she actually possesses, and her decision to leave them in the recycle bin in favor of songs that underscore her caricatured, gum-snapping, helium-voiced stripper routine is a dubious one. It's a side of Britney we've yet to really hear, and one that, for whatever reason, she feels compelled to keep hidden beneath a bad weave.
The disparity between Aguilera and Spears can't be measured solely by the timbre and octave range of their voices. True, Aguilera made a conscious choice to keep her private life out of the public domain (she still hasn't admitted to being pregnant, despite the obvious bump), but her popularity has never reached the fever pitch of Britney's. Perhaps the ex-Mrs. K-Fed's instinct to self-preserve via self-sabotage is at direct odds with her addiction to publicity—or to be less cynical about it, her inherent desire to perform. Her now-infamous VMA performance, the slapdash music video for her album's lead single, "Gimme More," and the fact that the cover of Blackout is the same photo the singer's record company has been using to tout her comeback for months, reveal an artist who simply couldn't be bothered, a once full-throttle drive that outpaced her limited talents seemingly decelerated by depression, drugs, just plain lack of interest, or all of the above.
All of this is surprising considering how voraciously Britney begs for it on "Gimme More" (which, for the record, reminds me a hell of a lot of "Boys" by Sabrina). The stripper anthem "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)" holds its own alongside the likes of "SexyBack" and "The Way I Are," providing further evidence that Danja, the man behind almost every notable hit by Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado in the last year and a half, is indeed responsible for Timbaland's renaissance. And Bloodshy & Avant, the team who produced Britney's hit "Toxic," pony up the beats on the glitchy "Piece of Me" (which, for lack of a better way to put it, sounds like robots hate-fucking) and the spunky, Kylie-esque "Toy Soldier."
For every hot, of-the-moment track, though, there's something like the nonsensical "Hot As Ice," which was co-penned by the thoroughly talentless T-Pain and might have worked two albums ago but just sounds retrograde here. Or "Heaven on Earth," another in a growing list of Euro-club tracks inspired by the mother of all dance songs, "I Feel Love"—only this one's watered down for the Hilary Duff sect. On a hit-to-miss scale, Blackout scores well, and its hotness quotient is remarkably high, but the album isn't much of a step forward for Britney following 2003's surprisingly strong In the Zone, for which she received a writing credit on a majority of the songs (as opposed to a scant three here).
One thing Britney doesn't lack is awareness. She's capable of delivering bon mots like, "I'm Mrs. 'Extra! Extra! This just in!'/I'm Mrs. 'She's too big, now she's too thin'" on "Piece of Me," but her inability to coherently fashion that understanding into something savvy or empowering separates her from her influences and even contemporaries like Aguilera. (Ironically, this self-reflective ditty is not one of the songs Britney had a hand in writing.) The bizarre lighting effects and digital body enhancement of the "Gimme More" video indicate a predilection toward maintaining an image that no longer reflects reality. It doesn't point to an artist who refuses to evolve, but rather one who doesn't know how—or isn't being allowed to. We—the public, the industry, and the media—created a kind of Frankensteinian super-paparazzi-star and now she's the one paying the price.