“It's a personal album,” Britney Spears mused to Capital Radio in October, as she announced the name of her eighth studio album, Britney Jean. “All my family, they always called me Britney Jean”. After 90 million album sales, two kids, the umbrella incident of 2007 and 15 years in the game, it would seem as good a time as any to start letting loose. Early reports indicated that Hit-Boy, Dev Hynes and William Orbit were working on the album, suggesting more of the genre-crossing invention of her best album Blackout, with a sprinkle of Ray of Light ethereality courtesy of Orbit. But wil.i.am, scourge of pop music, was roped in after the success of "Scream & Shout", and his pedestrian club donks are all over Britney Jean.
There are highlights, like the swooping “Passenger”, which was co-written by Katy Perry and Sia, and the clever second single “Perfume”, a midtempo where Britney sings of spritzing her ex-paramour with Fantasy Twist. She hasn't really belted it out like this since "Don't Let Me Be The Last To Know", and she sounds brilliant. The Orbit-produced “Alien” is a shimmering ambient lullaby with a brilliant "not alone, not alone, not alone" hook, and lead single “Work Bitch” trips along with its bonkers plummy ad libs. But new poppers-soaked jams like “Body Ache” and “Til It's Gone” feel like “Scream and Shout 2: It gets shoutier”, with little of that earlier collaboration's "Britney, bitch" fizz.
Britney Spears isn't in the same lane as Miley, Katy, Rihanna, Gaga, and so on. For those of us born between 1985-1990, Britney Spears is pop music, honing the American-via-Sweden candy-coated, tightly-packaged sound through her biggest millenial hits. Then, she went a lil' weirder, with “Slave 4 U” (her "We Can't Stop" moment) and “Toxic”. Later, the magisterial Blackout teemed with tight rhythms and stuttering menace, courtesy of the album's producers such as Danja and The Clutch. In it, she flipped from commanding "tear the floor up" with a dubstep throb to the defiant, dark-eyed "Gimme More". Along with Rihanna's Rated R (2009), it set a bar for disruptive yet dancefloor-ready pop.
Britney Jean hedges its bets, dipping its toe into commercially-risky territory with tracks such as "Alien", but by large follows EDM/dubstep/trap trends that lack colour and depth, and sound as dated as it feels to type them. There's a great EP in here waiting to get out – and, with her insistence on this being a personal record, possibly the album Britney wishes she had made. She shouldn't have to prove herself at this point – but on so much of this album, it's clear just how much she needs to.
Stream Britney Jean on iTunes here