At the ripe old age of 29, Britney Spears is one of pop music's elder stateswomen. Which is not to say that she's old, of course, but that she's already lived a lot in a short number of years. She's survived child stardom, grown beyond teenybopper pop-tart, weathered a personal and professional breakdown, and still come out swinging. That's all quite a feat in and of itself, but now she also has to contend with the changes that have happened in her genre and the new blood that's pumping through pop's vital organs.
To put it bluntly, Brit-Brit is not the top dog anymore, and that scenario presents her with some decisions to make: does she keep scrapping with the young pups, trying to outdo them at a game she helped create but no longer owns? Or does she repackage herself as a different kind of diva, someone more stately, perhaps, or just more mature? With her seventh album, she manages to kind of do both.
Femme Fatale is, on a basic level and out of necessity, a response to Lady Gaga -- in particular and to the general dance pop-ification of the charts. And so we find Britney reaching out to the gay community like never before, whether she's working the kind of clubby, disco-fueled beats that have previously populated only her most gay-friendly remixes or throwing a drag-queen-drenched free concert in San Francisco. We also find her embracing an aesthetic that is perhaps a little overly familiar at times: "Till the World Ends," for instance, has Ke$ha (who co-wrote it) written all over it. And "Big Fat Bass," a contribution from will.i.am, sounds like a heaping helping of bland Black Eyed Peas with a side of Dev (the FaR*eAst Movement hook-slinger behind the awfully analogous hit "Bass Down Low").
But look here, y'all: this here's the house that Mama Brit-Brit built. She knows how to make feather-light vocals over big dance-pop beats work. (Dare we even say she was born this way? Yes. Yes, we do.) What's more, she finally sounds almost comfortable in her own house. She seems to have given up tangling with her own not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman legacy, nor does she really have to prove she's not crazy anymore (and anyway, who cares if she is? Blackout was awesome). No more ménage-a-messes, no stripper poles.
Instead, we find Britney all growed up and maybe even ready to relax into life as a sexy, serious dance-club grande dame and trying out some interesting and, at times, pretty experimental styles in the process. She may very well be Max Martin's muse he and Dr. Luke are doing some really interesting stuff here, from the sweepingly syncopated beat missives of "Seal It With a Kiss" to the folk revival flute of "Criminal." And things get really strange on "Trouble for Me," as she duets with/mimics mush-mouth beats that sound the way grown-ups talk on Charlie Brown, and on the tripping, trippy "How I Roll," where Britney's own doctored-up gasping provides the song's pulse before melting into a singsongy synth-scape of blips and bleeps and male robo-vocals. Beyond the beats, however, Britney's making her own not-so-significant vocals work for her: she coos and coaxes (and at times even really sings, as on bonus track "He About to Lose Me"), sounding sensual and sweetly confident without forcing the issue or her voice into a size and style that no longer fit.