It's finally here! (Sort of.) Britney Spears' new album Britney Jean is now streaming on iTunes, a la Justin Timberlake's two-part 20-20 Experience — I'm just going to leave that comparison there without comment. Unfortunately for Brit Brit, she probably should have kept the album under wraps until its release, because there's not a whole lot of positive things to say about our beloved pop star's eighth full-length album. While "Work Bitch" was a promising start — still full of the infectious club fare Spears has been such a fan of on recent albums like Circus and Blackout. It took hold of pop culture and weaved its way into our heads, even if it was against many listeners' wills. "Work Bitch" is a classic Britney single in that way. But when taken with the horse pill that is Britney Jean, its luster starts to dull.
The promise of Britney Jean leans rather close to Spears' 2001 album Britney, which took us through the saccharine transformation of a singer who was — as we all remember — not a girl, not yet a woman. The lyrics were fitting to that time: "I know I may come off quiet/ I may come off shy/ But I feel like talking, feel like dancing/ When I see this guy," she sings in "Slave 4 U." She was growing up, and she told us so, however cheesy many of the lyrics may have been.
On Britney Jean, a similar level of inner monologue appears to be the goal; after all, Spears stepped her involvement in production this time around. She's delivering wisdom earned from many years on the celebrity battlefield — "You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch." She's expressing the frustration of her tumultuous fame journey — she compares herself to an alien in the obviously titled "Alien." She expresses her trouble with letting someone else do the driving in her life — Brit hands over the wheel in "Passenger." Still while the lyrics seem to open us up to the real Britney, the album feels as if it could have been manufactured without her input, bringing her in at the last minute to add her inevitably auto-tuned vocals. Instead, the album feels oddly like a farce on intimacy.
The lyrics are simple enough to take at face value, but the production falls flat. "Alien" takes on various pop music trends exploited endlessly by other artists, but waters them down to a place where the song hovers between straight pop music and the trends it hopes to emulate. "Perfume" -- the second song Spears released for preview — plays her old school pop game to a tee, but has lyrics centered in jealousy and possessiveness, lending the song a level of desperation that doesn't really jibe with its poppy center. Featured artists like wil.i.am and T.I. aren't able to elevate Spears' efforts, rendering her club beat-heavy, repetitive songs "It Should Be Easy" and "Tik Tik Boom" even more generic than they might have been without the additional voices.
But the true disappointment comes on the somewhat anticipated collaboration with Spears' younger sister Jamie Lynn. "Chillin' With You" pairs verses buried in sugar cubes and wine-soaked gum drops with a chorus that sounds like a Kidz Bop assassination of a Beyonce song. But it's not just the poorly-executed chorus or lines like "Drank some red wine and I'm walking on the sky" that bring Britney Jean down. It's the fact that while Spears' signature vocal fry is made more palatable by synthesizers throughout the album, her younger sister's sweet (albeit generic) voice rings through sweetly and untainted. It serves as a stark contrast to Spears' manufactured sound and as a distraction from the rest of the confounding song.
When Spears released "Work Bitch," it seemed that we might have another (grammar-challenged) playful Circus on our hands, perhaps with the lyrical relevance of her other "stripped down" lyrical journey on Britney. We had hope for some Spears music that we could at least become addicted to the same way we consume Coke with all its refined sugars and McDonald's golden delicious everlasting french fries. It wouldn't be a well-balanced meal, but it would be fun.
Instead, we're gifted with the love child of a Jersey Shore club and Mrs. Pacman, an album that at times sounds as if Spears' thought, "Young people like cell phones, right? Why don't we play with some text message sounds?" It feels forced and it strips Spears of her confident pop queen aesthetic. It's no longer a matter of "Here I am, you know you want me," but rather "Is this what you want?"
Unfortunately, our optimism for another Spears miracle album only proved one thing: We need to prepare ourselves better for disappointment. And of course, that there are still a few other Spears albums standing by, ready to console us.
Britney Jean will hit shelves and iTunes Dec. 3.