On the eve of her 32nd birthday, Britney Spears is at a pleasant point in her career, and has little left to prove in the recording studio, or anywhere else. 2011’s “Femme Fatale,” a collection of kinetic synth-pop largely helmed by Max Martin and Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald, was the first album that was effectively removed from the high-profile period of personal struggles that checkered Spears’ career in the late 00’s, and hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart thanks to pristinely crafted pop songs like “Hold It Against Me” and “Til The World Ends.” The flurry of hits from “Femme Fatale” was paired with a relatively controversy-free run for Spears, who put on a successful tour behind “Femme Fatale,” became a judge on “The X Factor,” helped Will.i.am score a Top 5 hit with “Scream & Shout” and danced with her two sons in the music video for “Ooh La La,” a song recorded for “The Smurfs 2” soundtrack. “Britney Jean,” her eighth studio effort, was announced concurrently with the singer’s two-year-long “Britney Spears: Piece of Me” residency at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas; while the reveal did not exactly make a new album seem incidental, it’s been made clear that, new hits or no, the “…Baby One More Time” auteur is going to endure.
“Britney Jean” as referred to Spears, her “most personal record yet,” but the pop superstar’s latest is more of an experiment than an autobiography. Martin and Dr. Luke are largely gone, and in their stead is executive producer Will.i.am, who contributed “Big Fat Bass” to “Femme Fatale” and whose pop production discography is underrated as a conglomerate (listen to Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Ke$ha’s “Crazy Kids” and Estelle’s “American Boy” for further proof). Although Will.i.am takes most of his cues from “Scream & Shout” and concocts elastic dance numbers like the David Guetta-assisted scorcher “Body Ache” and the bleating electronics showcase “Til It’s Gone,” there’s also “Perfume,” which admits to some cracks of jealousy in Spears’ unflappable exterior, and “Alien,” which harnesses William Orbit’s contemplative rhythms and lets the superstar muse about where she really belongs. There’s a duet between Britney and her sister, Jamie Lynn, that contains one of the strangest post-chorus transitions in recent memory, and while first single “Work Bitch” is a dance track, it’s also a dazzlingly weird one, eschewing the sing-along hooks of “Hold It Against Me” for profanity, pogoing tempos and British accents.
Spears’ eighth album is a transitional record, just like her third album. But whereas 2001’s “Britney” found Spears — no longer a girl, but not yet a woman — feeling her way toward adulthood and the candid sexuality of club life, “Britney Jean,” her first album released in her thirties, is a subtle shift away from frantic bangers and into more forthright songwriting. Perhaps that displacement will steer Spears toward the pop-rock world: “Passenger,” “Britney Jean’s” second-half standout, finds the singer ruminating on romantic trust while delivering an empowering vocal performance over Diplo’s guitar-driven production. It’s a song that requires a mature point of view, and might just be a harbinger of what’s to come.