Rarely has a major star's hotly anticipated album been harder to endure than Britney Spears' 2001 hit Britney. Like Michael Jackson's intolerable Invincible, which came out almost simultaneously, Britney represented the embarrassing sound of a huge pop star losing that tenuous grasp on anything in life unrelated to being a huge pop star. While Jackson's self-obsession manifested itself as another train-wreck of paranoid delusions dressed up by ticky-tacky (yet massively big-budget) beats and arrangements, Spears took the Burdens Of Being Britney route, opening a window to the joyless post-adolescence of a singer with nothing to say except how weird and shitty it feels to be massively famous. Appropriately, and fortunately for Spears and those inclined to listen to her records, she moves beyond that awkward transitional phase on In The Zone, and the result is an immaculately produced pop engine that never stops to worry about where it fits into the universe. Never mind the cheesy collaborations that open the proceedings: The Madonna pairing "Me Against The Music" is little more than an excuse for the two to roll around in a video, while "(I Got That) Boom Boom" finds Spears serving as a glorified backup singer for Dirty South rap duo Ying Yang Twins. Most of In The Zone redirects Spears' attention toward having fun and at least symbolically asserting control, à la Janet Jackson's Control. Especially without the aid of visuals, Spears remains a chilly nonentity who gets upstaged by her surroundings, but there are worse things for her to be than window dressing for some of the most state-of-the-art beats money can buy. If it's really Spears against the music, In The Zone lets the music win in a first-round TKO, but it's still her best friend, as her purring sex jams and lighthearted declarations of independence rub up against slippery, shimmery, three-dimensional production. Naturally, the lyrics are as insipid as can be–one of the Ying Yang Twins actually expresses a desire to "go to the club and get crunked with Britney!"–but it's strangely encouraging to hear Spears move beyond mere narcissism and get comfortable in a pop life that exists beyond her own much-ogled navel.