Picks and Pans Review: In the Zone

updated 12/01/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/2003 01:00AM

Britney Spears

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After making out with Madonna at the MTV Video Music Awards in August, Britney Spears hooks up with her idol again for "Me Against the Music," the funky first single off the singer's fourth disc. The song, which sounds like an early Madonna dance track, and the album show that the two have more in common than just blonde ambition. On In the Zone, Spears, 21, attempts to overcome her limited vocal ability and teen-pop past with the kind of cutting-edge dance music that has kept Madonna relevant throughout her career. She experiments with techno on the Moby-produced "Early Mornin'," crunk (a bass-heavy form of southern hip-hop) on "(I Got That) Boom Boom" and a reggae-Middle Eastern melange on the party jam "The Hook Up." While Spears is to be commended for taking some chances, the results are mixed; she's sometimes more Samantha Fox than Madonna. Spears, who sang "I'm a Slave 4 U" on her last CD, 2001's Britney, turns up the sexual heat here, singing about masturbation on "Touch of My Hand" and, on "Breathe on Me," directing a lover, "Boy don't stop 'cause I'm halfway there." On the disc's most personal moment, the piano-and-strings ballad "Every-time," Spears responds to ex Justin Timberlake's hit "Cry Me a River" with her own take on their breakup: "My weakness caused you pain." It makes for good gossip fodder, but not such great music.

R&B

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