One of my favorite groups of the past decade is Gorillaz. Damon Albarn started the virtual group as a commentary on current music culture (or something British like that), and while there have been social overtones to the project, I’ve always thought “What if someone made Gorillaz with a real person?” That’s to say, what if there was a pop artist out there who wasn’t an artist, but a pop music construct for a rotating list of musicians, producers, and writers to work under? What would that look like?
One credible answer would be Femme Fatale, Britney Spears’ seventh (holy shit) studio album. Granted, her artistic control has never extended past a dozen songwriting co-credits over as many years, but Femme Fatale has some 22 or 23 credited producers/songwriters. Among this fleet of industry insiders are familiar Britney collaborators Max Martin, Shellback, Alexander Kronlund, and Bloodshy & Avant, newcomers Dream Machine and Billboard, and personal pop music villains will.i.am, Ke$ha, Benny Blanco, and worst of all, Dr. Luke.
Not appearing in these credits: Britney Spears.
I know that not every pop star has hand in their own music, but Britney pretty much isn’t there on most of Femme Fatale. Most times when a large studio ensemble gets together for an album, the focus is on the pop star (Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taio Cruz, etc). But with Britney, the producers put the music first, and hey, if she can be worked in then sure, that’s fine. She never fights to be ahead of the music, her voice is altered all over to fit into the electronic storms behind her, and frankly, she sounds bored most of the time.
Which is kind of odd, considering that this is such a club record. Yeah, there’s a few dubstep moments thrown in (chiefly the bridge of first single “Hold It Against Me”), but this album is a slightly beefier version of exactly what her past two records have done: hypersexual, superstuffed club jams. To be fair, Britney Music Factory does produce some fun tunes; opener “Til the World Ends” is pretty decent, and I never had anything bad to say about “Hold It Against Me” aside from it’s safeness (which yes, you’ll be hearing about a lot ).
In fact, the whole of Femme Fatale is incredibly one-note. True story, the first few times that I listened to it as a whole, both straight through and on shuffle, I wasn’t able to make it all the way through. Not the album is entirely bad, but the monotony of it was overbearing.
There are some highlights. “Til the World Ends” is a unified, crazy catchy hit where Britney doesn’t get too amazingly overshadowed. “Trip To Your Heart” is the slowest moment here, and it’s kind of sweet and pretty in that artificial way. But far and away, the weird, aggressive “How I Roll” (produced by Bloodyshy, who also did “Toxic”) is the album’s best song. Comparatively stripped down and unconventional with stretched out synths and a manic drum kick, Britney actually sounds like she’s having fun, and the result is refreshing.
But in other places, the album’s everything snobs beat up on pop for. The Dr. Luke and Co songs (“Inside Out”, “Seal It With a Kiss”, “Gasoline”) are exactly what you’d expect: obnoxious synths leading the way for forcefully “catchy” hooks with a so-so result. But Femme Fatale is truly burdened by two middle album cuts: “(Drop Dead) Beautiful” and “Big Fat Bass”. The former sounds like a bad Ke$ha knock off with the most vapid rap verse I have ever heard, and…will.I.am is responsible for the latter. “Big Fat Bass” is bad Black Eyed Peas with the sleaze turned up to ten.
Femme Fatale is baffling in that it manages to be incredibly uniform, yet a complete mixed bag at the same time. The super aggressive club sound that was noteworthy for Blackout and Circus is all but rote, and with lyrics this shamelessly overt, Britney’s usual assault of whispers, coos, and moans is more of a joke than anything else. Still, though, there are some solid moments, and a little real fun goes a long way. Three stars out of five.
tl;dr: When it’s fun, it’s fun, but when not…oh, God. Three out of five.