Britney Spears, 'In The Zone' (Jive)

5
In the Zone
Critical Mass
Label: Jive

by Caryn Ganz

Just two years ago, Britney Spears was not a girl, not yet humping walls on a newsstand near you. But teen queens mature in dog years, and now that Hilary Duff is dangling her watch before the swing-set crowd, dear Brit can get down to the dirrty work. After a coolly received second album, a did-she-or-didn't-she Durst dalliance, and an eternity of tabloid-hounded par-taying later, Spears is slapping on a headlamp and heading into the mines.

Get in the Zone's first single, "Me Against the Music," is a fine specimen of Britney 4.0-a fast-paced dance anthem, all grinding percussion shuttling through a traffic jam of synths. Most of the record's up-tempo bangers trace the single's footsteps, bopping raucously without slipping into chintzy faux rock or flavorless hip-hop. Gone are the spare Neptunes beats of Britney, replaced by a hectic sonic pileup. Spears hits pay dirt on "Toxic," holding her own against a wall of drum breaks, strings, and James Bond surf guitar that warps and struts like it's been fed into the Matrix.

The actual Matrix songwriting team should be so lucky: Their ballad "Shadow" is a hollow yawn. Spears also missteps on the R. Kelly-produced "Outrageous," a go-nowhere homage to living fabulously (the secret? Sexy jeans!) and the dancehall bore "The Hook Up." But in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to her-like a ray of light. There's more Madonna in Get in the Zone than there was in Britney's mouth at the MTV Video Music Awards: "Breathe on Me" and"Touch of My Hand" borrow their shimmer, their discoid throb, and their self-confidence from the Material Girl's recent work. This Spears is a slave 4 no one: She barks orders and she-bops herself to satisfaction. ("Imagination's taken over," she purrs, "the more I come to understand the touch of my hand.") Still, the record's biggest declaration of self may be the Moby-produced "Early Mornin'." Over a lulling, circular bass line and morose flute sample, Spears crashes on the couch, trying to shake the residual fog of an obviously misspent night out, musing, "I can't be like that anymore." At these moments, Zone's offhand mastery suggests that she may not have to.

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