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Day 5: Britney Spears – “Blackout” (2007)
Genre: Pop / Dance / R’n’B
Blackout is the first requested review I’m doing on this blog. And it’s a pretty interesting one. The comeback of a singer that went through extreme situation after extreme situation – and an album that is widely credited as starting many of the pop music trends of roughly 2008-2012. Does it deserve the critical praise? Does it still hold up today, when everyone else has been doing the same thing for years? Let’s take a look at the standard version of the album!
The opening line of the album, a spoken “It’s Britney, Bitch” is legendary in itself by now – if only for the messy VMA performance – and gives way to the dirty, cut-off beats of Gimme More. Gimme More is unusual in just how purposefully rough the song sounds, filling the background with individual samples and choppy beats. It seems aware of Britney’s troubles and doesn’t try to hide them under overly polished production. It’s a throwback to the early days or remixing, of playing with individual lines and beats rather than filling up every last free space with synths. A style choice that is continued, but slightly updated, in Piece of Me. The dirty beats and rough edges are still there, but standing next to a smoother beat and vocal lines that use autotuning, reverb and vocoding as a tool to turn Britney’s voice into a capable instrument, almost using it as a vocal bank. The effect is artificial, distant and a perfect fit for the lyrics. Going all Tainted Love on your ears, Radar is build around a disconnected, distorted synth beat and almost seems to question the essence of pop songs in just how oddly matched the elements are. There’s an attention to detail in the production that makes it very clear that no element is accidental. It’s cold, programmed and fun. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next song, Break The Ice, was originally intended as Britney’s comeback single. It opens with Britney apologizing for…well…you could say for making us wait for the album, before bursting into one of the heaviest and yet lightest beats of the record. The high-pitched final pre-chorus easily passes as my favorite section of the album, it’s tense and the pay off is fantastic.
It feels a bit odd to jump into the 70s disco track Heaven on Earth, which just trots along at one pace without hurry, sensually and almost erotically. The vocals are layered, the instrumental is pulsing – it’s hypnotizing. It almost feels like it doesn’t belong between the rough edges of the other tracks – but Get Naked (I Got a Plan) is dirtier and grittier than the first 20 minutes combined, so that’s good. It sounds like something straight off Timbaland’s hugely successful Shock Value album from the year before – unsurprisingly, as it features Danja, who has worked with Timbaland on some of his biggest hits. It’s a fun track, more urban than the others, more distorted.
I’ve always disliked the second half of the album because I felt it had the common problem every Britney album shares: filler, but giving it a closer listen now, it isn’t that bad. Freakshow went all-out with dubstep before it became the thing to do and may feel a bit tired now, but was almost revolutionary on a Pop album back in 2007. I’m not a fan of the track, I find it too repetitive and messy, but hey, it’s over after less than 3 minutes! That’s good. Toy Soldier is a song I honestly even forgot existed, a drum heavy R’n’B track that seems a bit disconnected, aimless and greatly overpowers Britney’s vocals. And apparently Britney isn’t fine with one R’n’B-influenced track her voice wasn’t made for, so we get Hot as Ice right after it. It’s messy, tries to bring more force than she is capable of and just doesn’t deserve to be on the album. This may all sound a bit negative, but the songs aren’t awful – they’re just not great and highly forgettable.
Coming to save the day, Ooh Ooh Baby may just be the catchiest rehash of Toxic out there. The single guitar begins to drown between harmonies as Britney contributes clear, defined vocals. It’s fun, sexy, wonderfully produced and reminds of old Britney while adding a touch of the new. Why this wasn’t a single I will never know. Perfect Lover is another song in the Loose/Shock Value/FutureSex mold, but features a stronger mix than the former variants. The high-speed bridge towards the end is a nice little touch – the song can stand on its own. As grand finale, we get a Neptunes-produced midtempo ballad: Why Should I Be Sad. While I do think it’s a good song, I don’t think Britney’s delivery is strong enough to project the necessary emotion. I have a lot of respect for the writing and production work, but I just don’t feel it and the only thing I can blame for that is Britney’s overprocessed and underdelivered vocal line.
Blackout has aged well. It doesn’t feel revolutionary, but it’s still a fresh, fun record. The first half has clearly influenced many of the big pop hits of the last couple years and I’d argue without it we wouldn’t have gotten Lady Gaga in the shape in which we did. I’ll let each one of you decide for themselves if that’s a good thing. It feels like the logical continuation of Madonna’s Confessions album two years earlier and the Timbaland-heavy pop landscape of the months before. I’m not in love with all of the songs, but I think there’s some timeless classics there and even at its low points the album isn’t bad, just a bit uninteresting. Ooh Ooh Baby is my jam.
Rating: 3/5. As you may have guessed, I don’t do .5 ratings.