CD Review: In the Zone and MH

Britney Spears makes a heroic effort to stave off oblivion with her pivotal new fourth release, "In the Zone." That is, Spears and her army of collaborators, producers and guests make a heroic effort.

The 21-year-old is finally a full-fledged adult, and she's no longer counting on fickle pre-teen/early teen girls to drive her success. Instead Spears makes overtures toward a more mature pop audience and a hip-hop/urban audience and a dance audience.

"In the Zone" is easily Spears' best album - which isn't saying much given the dubious manipulations of her suspect vocals and the heavy-handed, formula-minded production of her previous releases. Yet "In the Zone" is more than just her best album; it's actually pretty good.

The appeal has little to do with first single "Me Against the Music," a duet with Madonna that sounds more like an overstimulated publicity stunt than a congruent song. Also, the overblown urban cuts "(I Got That) Boom Boom" (featuring the Ying Yang Twins), "Outrageous" (penned by R. Kelly) and "The Hook Up" (featuring dancehall vocals by BUD) are serviceably boisterous, though not really the best niche for Spears.

The singer hits her zone in the realm of electronica, whether she's slinking through the rhythmic brew of surface percolation and thumping undercurrent on "Showdown" or alternately growling and howling on the Middle-Eastern-flavored "Touch of My Hand." Spears also rises to the low-slung creeping of Moby's "Early Mornin'," though her most breathtaking performance comes on the sex-charged "Breathe on Me," a vibrating ride featuring the most naked - and alluring - Spears vocals yet recorded.

Britney Spears has never sounded like a more obvious successor to Madonna than she does on "In the Zone." And keep in mind that when Madonna was 21, she was still a nobody.

'MH' Marques Houston (T.U.G./Elektra)

Marques Houston looks and sounds like an adult these days, but he's still a bit immature. The 21-year-old singer got his start in the early 1990s in the kiddie trio Immature, which changed its name to IMX a few years ago as the members moved into their late teens.

Now Houston bids to become one of the young bucks of R&B with his solo "MH," which opens with the spoken blessings of his IMX cohorts Romeo and LDB and gets added support of a number of producers including R. Kelly.

"MH" is a blunt declaration of manhood, underscored with photos of a shirtless Houston, his hand poised over his crotch near a dangling belt buckle that reminds us of his childhood nickname "Batman." Yet sexuality alone doesn't define a man, even if it seems to sometimes (OK, most of the time). And on "MH" Houston acts like a kid in a candy store - only now "candy" equals "women."

The Kelly-produced first song "Clubbin" unfolds as one of those tedious hip-hop observational numbers, with a generic-voiced Houston singing about going to a bar with his "thugs," dancing with a "nice honey," talking on his cell phone. At least the guitar is warm and the rhythm hums. Things get nastier on the next track, a thumping "Pop That Booty" that features a running commentary on curvy women in tight clothes and no panties. On the timely next track, "That Girl," Houston issues a long whine to his girlfriend that he may occasionally look at other women, but (singing in falsetto), "You're the only one I need!"

"MH" then takes a mind-numbing jag into 11 consecutive romantic slow songs, starting well enough with the smoldering "Because of You" but degenerating into a blurry sameness of uninspired (if inoffensive) malaise.

P.S. His notions of love are no more grown up than his attitude about sex.

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