This article originally appeared in the November 16, 2001 issue of the
Cue up track six on the new Britney (Jive) and prepare yourself for the Technicolor disco flash-back of the year, swooning string section, chunky Nile Rodgers guitar riff, and all. The song's called "Anticipating," and it captures the most famous 19-year-old girl in the world at her guileless, sentimental best: "I'll be anticipating/ This is our song they're playing/ I wanna rock with you/ You're feeling this right/ Let's do this tonight." "Our song" may or may not be the disco-era Michael Jackson hit "Rock with You," but the tune's lyrical allusion and wide-eyed funk foundation sure do point in that direction. Which is nothing if not appropriate, since by the time you read this, Britney will almost certainly have knocked the first proper Jackson album in 10 years, Invincible (Epic), from the top of the charts.
It's a symbolic transition on a couple of levels – not as many as when Nirvana's Nevermind (DGC) pushed Jackson's last album of new material, Dangerous (Epic) from the #1 spot in early '92, but still enough to raise the attention of megapop fans around the globe. The beleaguered Jackson has long been king of pop in name only; yet it's been years since a solo performer emerged with enough mainstream appeal to take his soft-drink-shilling place. Eminem's not gonna do it, so that leaves us with Britney, an outrageously telegenic and charming student of the 80's school of dance pop pioneered by Jackson and his girlie counterparts, sister Janet and arch-rival Madonna.
On Britney's first single, the Neptunes-produced tour de funk "I'm a Slave 4 U," she's up to the task. Premiered at the MTV Video Music Awards just a few days before the World Trade Center tragedy, it's a dark, cosmic sex jam with a whole lot of heavy breathing and brilliantly spare musical accompaniment. You can practically hear the revered young production duo giggling to themselves when Britney sings the "dirty" lines they penned for her: "What's practical, what's logical?/What the hell, who cares?" or, more to the point, "Baby, don't you wanna dance up on me?" It's a bold anti-pop move that only a star of Britney's magnitude could get away with, and it's enhanced by the cleverly concealed hooks its closest antecedent, Madonna's "Justify My Love," sorely lacked.
The Neptunes contribute one other X-rated moment: "Boys," which weds the eroticism of prime Janet to the raw groove of one of their most famous productions, Ol Dirty Bastard's "I Got Your Money." Britney pants along to the hand-claps that flavor the song's rhythm track, cooing and whispering at her suitor to "turn this dance floor into our own little nasty world." The album's called Britney for a reason, but the Neptunes' playfully innovative arrangements cannot be ignored. And with "Lapdance" – the debut single from their vanity project, N.E.R.D.- currently making inroads on cheese-ball rock radio (where everyone hates teenyboppers), they're having their cake and eating it too.
As for Britney, she's all grown up and playing the sex card more convincingly than ever – as the photo of her in trailer-trash chic on the album cover attests. But she's still got her schmaltzy side, and the pretty, unadorned ballad "I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman" is probably the best slow dance she's ever recorded. Adult-pop bore Dido makes up for Shania Twain's underwhelming compositional turn on the last Britney album by cribbing lyrics from Shania herself (I'm just trying to find the woman in me"), and teen-pop demigods Max Martin and Rami draw an understated curtain of acoustic guitar and piano over the drum track from Shania's "You're Still the One." Britney's vocals still aren't going to win any contests, but she takes this song to heart, and it shows in her performance.
The early-'80S Joan Jett classic "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" is such a natural for Britney that she does it as straight-up karaoke, with synthetic beats and erstwhile turntable scratching thrown in for good measure. Super Bowl halftime shows aside, she hasn't "rocked" this hard since "(You Drive Me) Crazy," and the girl-power lyrics and fuzz-guitar coda that pump the song up make it a guaranteed concert highlight. And since the boy she spies dancin' there by the record machine is only 17, there's an extra cheap thrill to be had: Britney, of all people, is a cradle robber!
As 'N Sync showed on their recent Celebrity (Jive), the secret to making a great megapop album is to explore new styles without abandoning that all-important sugary foundation. Britney isn't quite as ambitious as Celebrity, but by that definition it's an unqualified success. Producer Rodney Jerkins contributes both "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and the disc's second-most-rocking tune, "Lonely," a guitar-driven kiss-off that ends with Britney rapping her way out of some guy's life. Martin and Rami up the tempo once they're done with "I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman," but none of their other three efforts matches that one's saccharine shine.