Let's just drop the "Spears." Say what you want about her, Britney's got impeccable marketing instincts. Rather than release an album retreading past territory (which is pretty skimpy, ridiculous stuff), she's taken a turn down a darker path. In the Zone is an awkwardly sexual album that de-humanizes sensuality. Britney's plentiful moans and come-ons sound like they were delivered by a sex-bot, while the music is something from a futuristic dance party. This edgier persona doesn't always work; vocally, Britney still sounds like a teenager on a cell phone. But musically, all the pieces are in place. Like Madonna before her, Britney has hired some of dance's best producers (including Moby), to give her booty-shaking credibility. Thus free of any musical concerns, she's able to devote herself entirely to out-slutting the likes of Christina Aguilera and Pink, to become the ultimate blow-up pop princess.
A superhighway of sound runs through the better cuts on In the Zone, driven by a healthy dose of world music. On "(I Got That) Boom Boom," Britney is backed by a crunk chorus of barking and braying southerners, while a banjo loops a riff pulled from halfway between Deliverance and New Delhi. "Showdown," the album's third cut, is a digital reggae hook-fest that's aggravatingly addicting.
Of course there's plenty of crap on In the Zone. The first song, "Me Against the Music" is already a hit, but it hopefully won't last long. Britney reveals a Missy Elliott-like ability to rap pop lyrics. (Shall we call this style of music "pap?") But it's laughably used by sentiments like "You think you're so hot, better show me what you got." The absolute worst work, however, is on the insipid song "Everytime," which has all of the hallmarks of the next big wedding song, and shows that Britney still hasn't shaken the label of "teen" pop.
Eventually, genuine maturity will start marching across Britney's thighs. But as a recording artist, she'll retain her nubility by acting as though she has something fresh and important to say with each album. There's just enough that works on In the Zone for the album to be a hit. But nothing is good enough to be around in three years. It's a recording that's planned to become obsolete, forcing Britney users to upgrade to the new version when she and her people decide what that's going to be.