August 26, 2016 at 09:19 PM EDT
We gave it a B

With a title like Glory, you might think Britney Spears fancies herself a blessing from the heavenly pop gods. After all, this is the woman who is adoringly called The Holy Spearit by her fans. But the name of her ninth album also suggests another, less majestic meaning: she’s vowing to reclaim her former glory after 2013’s widely panned Britney Jean.

In search of musical redemption, Spears, 34, hit the studio with rising producers like Mattman & Robin (Selena Gomez, Nick Jonas) and Nick Monson (Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP), among others. Together, they ditched her usual EDM-inspired club-bangers in favor of minimalist hip-hop (“Just Luv Me”), fizzy R&B (“Slumber Party”), and brassy soul (“What You Need”). It’s her most adventurous album in a decade, one that recalls the after-hours experimentation of her 2003 opus In the Zone. It’s also her most engaging vocally: her new partners hit the sweet spot between lending a little studio magic to her voice and turning her into Auto-Tune Barbie. As a result, Spears sounds more present and enthusiastic than she has in years. When she dims the lights on the breathy bedroom romp “Invitation,” it’s like she’s cooing into your ear.

If only her collaborators spent as much time on the songwriting as they did the ambiance. To score a winning pop song, Spears doesn’t need a strong melody (her titular command in 2013’s “Work Bitch” gets the job done) or even discernible words (those oh-oh-ohs of 2011’s “Till the World Ends” still sound euphoric today). Yet the generic bass drop of “Clumsy” and the half-baked hooks of tracks like “Love Me Down” are missed opportunities given Glory’s three-year gestation—the second longest of her career.

Since hitting her tabloid nadir in 2007, Spears has become one of America’s most guarded celebrities, and in recent years she has tried to entice fans with access, calling Britney Jean her “most personal record yet.” Fans will glean little of Spears’ life from Glory’s flirty tales of adult sleepovers, yet these songs still manage to be more revealing. In the run-up to Glory, Spears’ collaborators spoke of how hands-on she was in the studio, eager to deliver the unexpected. Even weaker tracks, such as the grating strip-tease “Private Show,” feel like glimpses of the real Britney—her musical tastes, her voice—imperfections and all. Not everything is glorious, but it might be something better: human. Finally, Spears is having as much fun as her songs sound. B

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“Make Me…”

The seductive first single gets an assist from rapper G-Eazy

“Do You Wanna Come Over?”

Acoustic guitars and gurgling bass lines make for one freaky pop experiment

“Man on the Moon”

This dreamy pop confection soars with a gravity-defying beat

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