To thwart bootleggers, and perhaps the reviewing process, reviewers get to hear Britney Spears third album once: on a swivel chair in the middle of her record company's office whilst all around workers get on with their daily chores.
But even after just one play it's clear 'Britney' is Spears' coming of age album. This is not an album exclusively for playground dance routines, this is an album of late nights and nightclubs, of self-discovery and self-doubt. She's clearly manoeuvring herself into Madonna's slipstream, but a better comparison can be made with Janet Jackson's 1986 album, 'Control', where Jackson powerfully announced her womanhood with an explosion of club-dominated pop. 'Britney' pulls off exactly the same trick, both musically and lyrically.
She enlists an array of top grade songwriters to facilitate this, including Rodney Jerkins, Dido and her boyfriend, *N SYNC's Justin Timberlake. It's The Neptunes, though, who spin the darkest magic with their two tracks - even if the lusty electro funk of 'I'm A Slave 4 U' and 'Boys' are essentially the same songs telling exactly the same story: that it's better to be a slave to the rhythm than to any man. Timberlake, meanwhile, provides backing yelps on his re-write of *N SYNC's 'Pop', 'What's It Like To Be Me', as well as a bizarre lyric for his fiancee to sing. "Do me right", growls Britney, "or we're through". Is this a memo from Justin to himself, or to her?
Indeed, the fact Britney, 19, has so little lyrical input into all this soul bearing (including an icky trio of love ballads towards the end, written mainly by old Swedish men) somewhat lessens its dramatic impact. That it takes Dido - a woman staring into the harsh glare of her thirties - to sum up the projected mood of a young woman bidding farewell to the comfort of her teens with 'I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman' is ironic. That Dido forces Britney to pitch in with the kind of come-down funk for which Dido's become unjustifiably famous is downright cruel.
Britney and 'Britney' still works best when making a good pop cheese and dance sandwich: there's the ace Rodney Jerkins-produced version of Joan Jett's 'I Love Rock'n'Roll', which does exactly what is says on the tin. There's the crackle and Euro pop fizz of 'Overprotected' ("I'm so fed up with being told to be something else but me", howls Spears over a song written and produced by Max Martin and Rami). There's the roaring disco of 'Anticipating' (take that, Kylie!), but best of all there's 'Boombastic Love' which has exactly the same chorus as 'Oops...I Did It Again!'. All of this is better than the slow-paced navel-gazing. Then again...
"It does improve the more times you hear," urges one of Jive's Britney-battered workers as we leave. Alas, that must remain a moot opinion .