It's been fashionable to hate Britney Spears since the day she first tapped her pencil on the side of a desk in her slutty little school girl outfit and pigtails. Since then she's showed hints of potential here and there, but that's only served to aggravate critics even more. Add to that the often captivating evolution of her fellow Mouseketeers and Britney's reign as pop's princess seems to be anything but assured. Pink has a firm grip on the subversive energy that helped catapult Madonna into superstardom almost two decades ago, and we all know who inherited Mariah's pipes, so what's left for Ms. Spears? Well, for starters, she knows her limitations. Apart from two sappy ballads (the Matrix-produced "Shadow," a power ballad that sounds like it was imported from 1986, and the weepy "Everytime"), Britney's fourth album, In The Zone, finds the pop tart coming of age with a bold mix of hip-hop and dance music, wiping clean the last traces of her bubblegum-pop past.
For the most part, In The Zone is a big, fat, thumping love letter to the dancefloor, which makes Madonna's involvement (on lead single "Me Against The Music," arguably one of Britney's finest moments and one of her mentor's worst) even more appropriate. Britney's unabashed devotion to dance-pop is, perhaps, the one thing that truly links her to the big M, as she presses her body "up against the speaker" the way Madonna did back in the early '80s. Tracks like the Southern-fried, banjo-infused "(I Got That) Boom Boom," which features Atlanta party rap duo Ying Yang Twins, and the string-laden, Bollywood-style "Toxic" find Britney dabbling in hip-hop, but it's clear her heart lies in the clubs. Britney beckons to an anonymous dance partner on the ambient-techno number "Breathe On Me," exploring (perhaps for the first time in her career) the eroticism of restraint: "We don't need to touch/Just breathe on me." Curiously, the sexy thump of the song is briefly interrupted when Britney simultaneously channels George Michael ("Monogamy is the way to go," she whispers) and Lauren Bacall by way of Madonna ("Just put your lips together and blow!").
After a night at the club (and, interestingly, little actual physical contact), she passes out on a couch in the "Early Mornin'" (with hypnotic beats, bass loop and synth flute courtesy of Moby) and finds some self-gratification on the Middle Eastern-hued ode to masturbation "Touch Of My Hand." The only hint of pure pop is the retro Euro-dance/pop number "Brave New Girl" (yes, we're assuming Britney actually had the chutzpah to evoke the Aldous Huxley classic without having read the book). "Outrageous," a collaboration with R. Kelly, includes a telling parallel that reveals a lot about one of music's biggest—as Alanis Morissette would put it—treadmill capitalists: she sings "my sex drive" and "my shopping spree" with the same dripping gusto. For a girl who's always seemed too sexed-up for her age, In The Zone finds Britney finally filling her britches, so-to-speak. Her little girl coquettishness actually works now—maybe because, at 21, she's finally a woman. And she's a self-referential one, at that: "Am I too hot for you?/Did you check out my video?" she asks a prospective boy-toy on "Showdown." Yes, Britney, we all have. And that's the way you like it.