The nasty custody battle. The hair-razing meltdown. The trips to rehab. The abysmal VMAs performance. Shall we go on? All of 25-year-old Britney Spears' recent setbacks suggest that her fifth CD, ominously titled Blackout, would fan the flames of her hot mess of a year. Well, brace yourself for the biggest shock yet: Blackout a collection of well-produced, thoroughly enjoyable dance songs may just put this once-celebrated pop star back on top.
Spears has always been a performer who's valued image over creative output. It's interesting, then, that periods of introspection albeit those penned primarily by hired hands yield Blackout's finest moments. ''Piece of Me,'' produced by Bloodshy & Avant (''Toxic''), is a rump shaker that finds Spears venting: ''I'm Mrs. most likely to get on the TV for slippin' on the street when getting the groceries/Now, for real, are you kidding me?'' Later, on ''Toy Soldier'' another fiery B&A creation, which echoes the sass and substance of ''Soldier'' by Destiny's Child she blasts ''weak'' tomcats (like K-Fed?) to the beat of a lively military drumroll.
For the most part, Spears puts up a brave front by relishing her newfound independence. That is, until a chink in her armor appears on the heavy-hearted closer, ''Why Should I Be Sad.'' Produced by the Neptunes and written by Pharrell Williams for Spears, it's a deeply personal, midtempo groove the closest thing to a ballad on Blackout that unfolds like an open letter to her babies' daddy. ''I sent you to Vegas with a pocket full of paper and with no ultimatums on you/I thought, What could separate us,'' she sings. ''But it just seemed that Vegas only brought the playa out of you.''
Of course, we know all too well that Spears has a little playa in her, too. So it's no surprise that she flaunts her fondness for late-night carousing on fluffy dance tracks. Take the ubiquitous ''Gimme More'' or the shameless ''Freakshow'' (co-written by Spears), where she coos, ''I'm bout to shake my ass/Snatch that boy so fast/Make dem other bitches mad.'' Her seemingly insatiable libido is likewise the driving force behind Blackout's preponderance of breathy come-ons, such as ''Get Naked (I Got a Plan),'' ''Perfect Lover,'' and ''Ooh Ooh Baby,'' which she also helped to write.
Poetry it's not. Still, there is something delightfully escapist about Blackout, a perfectly serviceable dance album abundant in the kind of bouncy electro elements that buttressed her hottest hits (''I'm a Slave 4 U,'' ''Toxic''). Say what you will about Spears' personal life, but there's no denying that the girl knows how to have a good time. B+
DOWNLOAD THIS: Hear ''Heaven on Earth'' and the entire Blackout album at VH1.com