`Britney' seeking `Control'

November 07, 2001|By Greg Kot | Greg Kot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Her ambition is as clear as the jewel that glimmers from her pierced navel. Britney Spears doesn't want to be like Mike, as in Michael Jackson. She wants to be like Mike's sister, Janet.

That much is clear as Spears, who turns 20 on Dec. 2 and released Britney, her third album, yesterday, enters the next phase of her brief, best-selling career.

After all, now that she's almost not a teen-ager anymore, that Lolita baby-doll pose that has served her so well the last three years is going to need to grow up, and fast, if she wants to keep pace with an audience that inhales and spits out trendy pop singers faster than you can say "Paula Abdul."

Like her predecessors, Spears faces the crucial question of staying power after two of the best-selling albums ever by a female artist: ... Baby One More Time (1999) and Oops! ... I Did It Again (2000).

Little wonder that Spears has modeled Britney after a crucial early work by Janet Jackson. Jackson's third release, Control (1986), marked her arrival as a serious R&B star, and its primary theme - of a 19-year-old woman asserting herself artistically and personally - is echoed explicitly on Spears' third album.

Like 'N Sync, which upped the ante on its latest album, Pop, Spears refreshes her sound with a more pronounced hip-hop flavor, employing cutting-edge producers the Neptunes to inject "I'm a Slave 4 U" and "Boys" with off-kilter keyboards and skewed beats.

As a singer, Spears remains limited in range and tonal color. She continues to alternate two vocal styles: a pinched, nasal delivery that signifies she's getting funky and a post-Mouseketeer trill that gives her ballads a show-biz aura.

But dance-pop remains a producer's medium, and it's almost incidental who's doing the singing as long as the track is bumping. And while Britney is not nearly as groundbreaking as Control, it suggests that Spears has evaluated the somewhat conservative and formulaic sound of her past work, and has taken steps to sharpen it.

Unlike Jackson, who had almost nothing to lose when she made Control, Spears is a superstar who can't afford to change too abruptly, lest she upset her fans. That's why Britney is more of a tentative, transitional album than the bold, grown-up album Spears will have to make if she wants to be the next Janet Jackson, rather than just another Paula Abdul.

Greg Kot is a music critic for the Chicago Tribune.


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Sun score: ** 1/2

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