Britney Spears equates growing up with going down. On her new album, she's content to bare her backside, if not her soul, with throbbing, debauched disco that sounds like a barely legal version of Madonna's Music.
Madge lends breathy backing coos to the first single, "Me Against the Music," though her presence is just as palpable throughout the rest of In the Zone. "Touch of My Hand," with its elastic, Mirwais-robbing beat and vocoder vocals, sounds like the Material Girl in heat, while the flute loop and slow-grind bass of the Moby-produced track "Early Mornin'" wouldn't be out of place on Ray of Light. Spears moans her way through the album perpetually short of breath, sounding somewhere between oversexed and asthmatic. What results is sensual trip-hop, highlighted by the bedroom-bound "Breathe on Me," where pulses quicken as the beat slows, and the equally tawdry "Toxic," on which she rides Bollywood strings and a burping beat.
A subpar second half stops the album short of being stellar: The leaden reggae toss-off "The Hook Up" and the cloying, Matrix-produced ballad, "Shadow," are mired in pedestrian pop. Still, on most of In the Zone, Spears's music is finally as taut as her midriff.