The early buzz on the new Britney Spears album was that it would be adventurous, atmospheric and above all, adult. Two out of three ain't bad.
Sure, Britney has a bit of a trip-hop vibe on her upcoming album, just not enough to justify her love for her mentor Madonna's latter-day direction. In the Zone is by no means Britney's Ray of Light. Instead, Spears' fourth album jumps stylistically all over the place, from techno to hip-hop, even to reggae, with thumping, tribal dance songs being the predominant flavor, save for a touching ballad or two. The only thematic connection is the recurring topic of sex, sex and more sex. Oh, and some partying, too.
"Me Against the Music" aside, Spears sings that she's got the beat when she pairs up with the Ying Yang Twins who urge her to get crunk Atlanta-style on "(I Got That) Boom Boom." Not that she needs encouraging — Britney's dead-set on getting her groove on in party-hard songs like the bubbly "Brave New Girl," and partied-too-hard songs like the more brooding "Early Mornin'," which features a shimmering, percolating beat from Moby and subdued vocals from Spears (see "Britney Talks New Album But Remains Coy On First Single").
"Brave New Girl," formerly called "Brave Girl," on the other hand, is backed by choppy, electro-funk beats and features Britney singing in a bouncy near-rap: "She's going to find her passion, she's going to find her way, she's going to get right out of this/ She don't want New York, she don't want L.A., she's going to find that special kiss."
As innocent as that sounds, it's not just a kiss Britney wants on the rest of In the Zone, which she uses to unleash her libido in as many situations as she can dream up. In the beat-heavy R. Kelly booty-call track "Outrageous," she whispers and moans about "my sex drive" and how her underwear feels in her "sexy jeans" with a snake charmer melody giving the song an exotic feel. She continues to entice on the Bloodshy & Avant-produced "Showdown," which, with its bubbly beats, is about fighting and making up with carnal relations: "After the screaming's at an end/ Why don't we do it all again ... I don't want to be a tease/ Would you undo my zipper please?"
Not all the sex is good sex, though. "Toxic" bemoans being addicted to men who aren’t good for you — like, oh, say, married men? But even less than desirable situations can provide good memories, as in the Matrix collaboration "Shadow," which talks about how reminders of a lover can still linger after he’s gone. The same effect exists in "Everytime," the ballad Spears previewed on "Saturday Night Live," but to a more haunting end since the lovers have parted for good.
Even if the lovers never touch, as in "Breathe on Me," the narrator's desire fills the air (see "Britney Gets 'Just A Little Freaky' On In The Zone"). Of the songs on In the Zone,"Breathe on Me" most earns the trip-hop comparisons, and despite not being as overtly sexual, it's the most sensual: "Oh, it's so hot, and I need some air/ And boy, don't stop 'cause I'm halfway there … just put your lips together and blow."
A girl can only take so much unfettered frustration, so Britney shows herself a little love on "Touch of My Hand," which also features a Far East influence: "I will be bold/ Going to the places where I can be out of control/ Don't want to explain tonight/ All the things I try to hide."
By contrast, "Everytime" is her most innocent, and perhaps her most personal, song on In the Zone. Though she's denied having a response to Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," the lilting piano-accompanied tune comes closest to a plea for forgiveness for inadvertently hurting a former lover. In the song she sings, "What have I done? … I may have made it rain/ Please forgive me/ My weakness caused you pain" (see "Britney Previews LP, Denies Rumors Of 'Cry Me A River' Response").
Through it all, Spears is as self-referential as many hip-hop artists, getting her featured guests to give her shout-outs and dropping pop- star tidbits as if they were come-ons. The reference to "my world tour" on "Outrageous" is moaned with the same ecstasy as "my sex drive," and the cumulative effect seems like it's designed to put the listener in the lover's shoes — taking full advantage of the aural male gaze. If the technique works, In the Zone will make the most of Spears' latest maneuverings to graduate from pop princess to pop pin-up. The other possibility is that she's just dropping a litany of diary-like entries. Regardless, this is her life, she seems to be singing, and criticism be damned — sex is gonna be in the mix.