Britney Jean is the first Britney Spears album in which the singer is credited as a co-writer on every track (to put it in perspective, her songwriting credits on her last three efforts combined can be counted on one hand). That fact, coupled with the album’s ostensibly personal title, suggests that Britney might be vying for some kind of artistic credibility. Alas, it’s more likely that she’s finally decided to grab a chunk of those lucrative publishing royalties for herself.
Designed by committee, with up to six producers and nine songwriters per track, Britney Jean is stocked with a mix of harsh EDM a la “Scream & Shout” and flaccid midtempo pop. The hideous filtered synths featured throughout the album (courtesy of producers like will.i.am and, naturally, David Guetta) are most forgivable on the catchy “Til It’s Gone,” which is as close as Britney Jean gets to Eurotrash earworms like Femme Fatale’s “Till the World Ends” and “Hold It Against Me.” Lead single “Work Bitch,” on the other hand, is the aural equivalent of bath salts, a shrill and mechanical assault on the brain, while “Tik Tik Boom” is by far Britney Jean and company’s most egregious lapse in judgment; it’s the latest in a string of female pop singers venturing into trap-lite, with T.I. offering tripe like “She like the way I eat her/Beat her, beat her/Treat her like an animal, somebody call PETA.” Uh, somebody call Tip’s probation officer.
Despite the absence of longtime producer Max Martin and his associates, the album is a surprisingly retrograde affair, with midtempo tracks marred by dated production and vocals that hark back to the days when Brit was selling 10 million. Over the years, she’s smartly stretched her limited talents by using softer tones or exaggerating her signature tics, but on songs like “Perfume,” Britney sounds like she’s got a frog caught in her throat. And despite copious (mis)use of Auto-Tune throughout the album, apparently no one thought to employ it for its intended purpose of pitch correction. But even the most gifted performer couldn’t save a song as ineptly composed as the icky “Perfume.” (Perhaps the über-talented Sia, who co-wrote the tune, was simply taking the piss?)
Unlike the closing track “Don’t Cry,” where the Auto-Tune sounds like it was inadvertently turned up just a notch too high, a generous helping of vocal processing actually makes thematic sense on the plush, William Orbit-helmed opener, “Alien,” conveying a sense of despondency and loneliness echoed in the song’s lyrics. Along with the Diplo-produced “Passenger,” it’s one of the few moments on Britney Jean that even make an attempt to push Britney’s sound forward.