Blackout has perhaps become Britney’s most lauded album among fans and retrospective pop music critics. This is rather significant considering its relatively low impact at the time. The music had taken a backseat to Britney’s media attention and tabloid coverage. The critics were more concerned with her awkward pole-dancing in the “Gimme More” music video or her lip-synced fumbling performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. The album remains a black sheep among her discography, which sees Britney completely embracing the underground genres of dark electro-pop, techno, and even dubstep (all of which became more popular in later years). It didn’t offer the type of bubbly personality, sensuality, or radio-friendly hits we’d come to expect from a Britney album. This was what made it such an outlier – not just for Britney, but for the pop music landscape.
Blackout is arguably Britney’s most cohesive album; the soundscape is succinct and each track brings its own level of satisfaction for the overall listening experience. However, despite this praise, it’s difficult to name Blackout as the best Britney album. The project is decidedly impersonal. Beyond a few softer tracks – like “Heaven on Earth” and “Why Do I Feel Sad” – the album is aggressively and unabashedly sexual. In The Zone had offered tracks oozing intimacy with a slice of passion: Britney whispered soft desires in “Breathe on Me” and easy sultriness over oriental strings on “Touch of my Hand”. Blackout hits listeners with gritty, hard-edge beats, forward lyrics of uncommitted erotic encounters, and a fair amount of vocals from the male producers that make you feel like a sweaty guy is breathing down your neck at a club. In fact, the entire albums feels like strobe-lights in a crowded black-box club, black paint on the walls and floors, and graffiti all over the bathroom stalls. The room is spinning, it’s dark, and there are people grinding on you from all sides. In some ways I suppose that was the intention of this album: it was meant for the clubs.
On In The Zone, Britney co-wrote eight of the tracks. These were oftentimes specific to her experiences or interests. In 2005, fans were seeing Britney becoming more and more involved in the creative process, and were even promised the most personal project of her career. Whatever work was done between 2004 and 2007 was seemingly scrapped (with only a few Britney-penned tracks surviving on an EP) and the public received Blackout instead. Britney barely contributed to two of the tracks on the album, and considering her private struggles, the media scrutinizing her behavior, and being pregnant during recording, it’s hard to find the artist’s personal connection to the music. Britney only performed once to promote the album, and was focused instead on her own trials and tribulations. Considering what was going on with her at the time, a raw, sexually-charged record is an odd professional move. That isn’t to say that Britney isn’t present on the album. Despite criticisms of over-reliance on autotune, Britney is direct, loud, and sassy on Blackout, giving more than a few memorable performances. An album doesn’t necessarily need to come from a personal place to be good. Blackout is sonically interesting and one of the most provocative pop albums of the 2000s. Other female pop singers of the time couldn’t quite pull off this type of image and embracement of underground pop subgenres as Britney did. It remains a solid, timeless album even after all these years.
One of the reasons why Blackout can’t quite snag the title of Britney’s best album is because of the releases that bookend it. In the Zone saw Britney’s intentionally-charged blossom out of her teen-pop image and into womanhood and creative metamorphosis. The album doesn’t quite hit you from all sides, as there are a few tracks that could have been replaced by any number of excellent unreleased material, but it saw Britney at her most involved. It was refreshing to see her finally take control of her music. On the other end, Britney barely gave Blackout enough time to rest in the dirt before releasing Circus in 2008. Although Britney still wasn’t giving much creative input, the album has a better balance in tone. The album is more positive, brighter, and doesn’t preoccupy itself with the subject of sex. The album is full of certified hits (“Womanizer”, “Circus”, “If U Seek Amy”) and even more potential smashes (“Kill the Lights”, “Shattered Glass”, “Unusual You”). Circus saw Britney re-embracing Top 40 sensibilities, but unlike the bubblegum releases of her youth, this album is mature and competent.
One can’t quite say whether or not In the Zone or Circus are Britney’s best efforts – just as it can’t be said with certainty that Blackout takes that crown. All three are highly formidable pop albums in their own right, and it all depends on what the listener wants from Britney Spears as an artist.