Britney Spears is a professional tease. Take her music videos for example: from the softcore pornography of “...Baby One More Time” to the greased up panting of “I’m a Slave 4 U,” it seems the super-starlet can’t decide whether she’s a stripper or a prostitute. But alas, she’s neither. She’s a self-proclaimed virgin; her favorite book is Conversations with God. “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” the second single from Spears’s third album, Britney, hints at some genuine truths about the singer for the very first time: “I’m just trying to find the woman in me/All I need is time/A moment that is mine/While I’m in between.” The song, co-written by Dido and Spears mainstays Max Martin and Rami, makes Dido’s own music sound like leftfield alternative, but it might just be the most honest performance Spears has ever put to tape.
The problem is, however, that Spears is also a consummate under-achiever. There’s a learning curve in pop superstardom and Britney’s development has seemed comparatively slow—if only because she’s released three albums in such a short period without much time for growth in between. The media generously and optimistically dubbed her the next Madonna but she’s nowhere near “Live to Tell” and she’s light years away from Like a Prayer. (It’s undoubtedly hard to gain street cred when you think DJ Skribble matters anywhere else but at the Jersey Shore.) Her interpretations of classics like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and, now, “I Love Rock N’ Roll” lack irony and grit. Her work with electronic guru BT was guiltlessly scrapped because it didn’t “fit” Spears’s vision. (Lord knows we wouldn’t want to silence the screaming TRL contingent.)
Spears unveiled the album’s first single, “I’m a Slave 4 U,” at the 2001 VMAs. The song, her chirpy voice and performance initially recalled Paula Abdul’s last moderate hit, “My Love Is for Real.” Both songs have subtle Middle Eastern flavors and both require little of their vocalists. However, “Slave” (produced by the ubiquitous Neptunes), coupled with one of the hottest videos of the year (courtesy of director Francis Lawrence), elevates Ms. Spears just slightly above her paradoxical squeaky clean image. Likewise, the retro-funky “Boys” calls on Janet’s “Nasty” and Vanity’s “Nasty Girl” to help channel Spears’s chastity into unapologetic dancefloor aggression.
Other surprise deviations from the formula include the saccharine-doused disco of “Anticipating” and the midtempo “That’s Where You Take Me,” in which Spears gives a Janet-inspired performance amid Middle Eastern chimes and a collage of electronic beats and drum programming. Martin and Rami spice up their pop recipe on the savory “Overprotected” but the hip-pop of tracks like “Let Me Be” and “Bombastic Love” stick to the same old Britney blueprint. Britney fills her role of guilty pleasure (the disc certainly satiates more than the stunted growth of last year’s Oops!...I Did It Again), but it’s time for Spears to quit being such a cock-tease and cook something up that will satisfy the ever-vacillating hype-machine.