Just when it seemed safe to write off Britney Spears as a punch line only capable of entertaining people through tabloid escapades, she goes and gets all musically relevant on us.
Blackout, her first studio album in four years, is not only a very good album, it is her best work ever － a triumph, with not a bad song to be found on the 12 tracks.
Granted, a Spears rave should be put in its proper context － it is not like we're talking Bob Dylan here. Spears is a lightweight singer who only flourishes when she has great songs and great producers to supplement her minimal vocal talent.
But when she has that help, she is fierce. And she gets that boost on every single track on Blackout, a sizzling, well-crafted, electro-pop dance fest that should return her to pop's elite.
Spears emerges on Blackout as the antithesis of her tabloid persona － confident, sensual, and in control.
"I got my eye on you," she coos on one of the album's best tracks, Radar, a sexy techno groove that you can't help but bounce to. It's all about generating heat on the dance floor.
On the aptly titled Freakshow, produced by Danja (who worked on Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds), Spears gets voyeuristic with a tantalizing promise to get wild in the club. The hypnotic Get Naked (I Got a Plan), also produced by Danja, features Spears breathlessly asking, "What I gotta do to make you move my body," before demanding, "take it off, take it off, take it off."
Listening to Blackout is not only an energetic release, it is also a relief: No, Spears has not completely lost it, and yes, her career has a flicker of fire left.
Two years ago Chris Brown's self-titled debut album had hard hip-hop beats to match his lightweight love songs, and part of his appeal was that he wasn't too old to flash a big smile or flaunt his good manners. His was a simple and hugely effective strategy; in a radio landscape dominated by sordid R 'n' B and gruff hip-hop, Brown out-niced the competition.
Now Brown returns as a relative veteran and, as of a few months ago, a legal adult. It hasn't been easy. After a single, Wall to Wall, failed to build momentum, his new album, Exclusive, was delayed. Now he's back on top with Kiss Kiss, the second single, which hit number one on Billboard's Hot 100 chart last week.
Oddly, Exclusive finds a formerly enthusiastic boy sounding a bit anxious about his position as a full-grown lover-man. The album begins with Throwed, a rather inert dance track that's supposed to be a tribute to the homegrown Washington funk sound known as go-go.
Elsewhere he borrows brazenly from R 'n' B contemporaries: With You could almost be a cover of Beyonce's Irreplaceable. Damage, a dreary ballad, isn't improved by the T-Pain-ish vocal processing. I Wanna Be starts with a sotto-voce introduction that's bound to remind listeners of Usher's Burn. It's odd to hear a likable young star sounding so desperate.
But when he relaxes a bit, he discovers that his old approach works as well as it ever did. Hold Up has a squelching bass line and some loopy rhymes from Big Boi, and Lottery is four minutes of Brown in can-I-have-your-number mode. Then there's Down, a thrilling mishmash with a stomping beat, a heraldic electric guitar line, a memorable Kanye West appearance and a monster chorus that should come blasting out of radios sometime in the next few months.