Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.
If you can believe it, Britney Spears would like people to focus on her music, not her midriff.
But seeing is believing, and since the debut of her music video "I'm a Slave 4 U" two years ago, fans have seen Spears take an increasingly provocative journey into sexual exhibitionism.
From her love life to her infamous MTV Video Music Awards kiss with Madonna to her National Football League kickoff concert and her most recent performance in New York's Times Square, the artist has tested the limits of her sexuality.
But now comes the moment of truth. With her new album, "In the Zone," set to be released Nov. 17 internationally and Nov. 18 in the U.S., her label, Jive Records, can only hope that her midriff won't overpower her music.
The challenge for the record label is to get across that Spears, 22, has matured as an artist and is ready for a grown-up and more musically diverse audience.
In an interview with Billboard, Spears tries to make the point clear that she's just being herself.
"I'm doing my thing, and it's the media that's misconstruing the whole conception. It's not me," she insists. "I can't help the fact that they write about me going to Starbucks 24-7."
Ironically, her album sales seem to have declined in direct proportion to her increasing public profile.
Her 1999 debut, "... Baby One More Time," sold 10 million copies. Subsequent releases -- 2000's "Oops! ... I Did It Again" and 2001's "Britney" -- sold 9.1 million and 4.2 million copies, respectively, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"Certainly, the kiss at the MTV Awards segued into the Madonna single and video in a big way," Jive president Barry Weiss says.
Perhaps. But so far, public reaction to the new material has fallen well short of the media excitement.
"Me Against the Music," the album's opening single (featuring ample guestwork by Madonna), is up 13-11 this week on Billboard's Mainstream Top 40 chart. But on the Hot 100, it slips six slots to No. 44 in its fifth week.
"In the Zone" marks a musical departure for Spears. Instead of traditional pop, the singer opts for a darker, more dance-oriented sound.
"It was a weird process at first," Spears says. "I didn't exactly know what direction I wanted to go in, but I took my time. That's why I like this album so much.
"I did it right. I waited to find myself with other people that I really had chemistry with and could really be creative with," she says.
The album includes production from Moby, Bloodshy & Avant, R. Kelly and the Matrix, among others.
The new direction was felt immediately with "Touch of My Hand," the first song that Spears cut for the new album.
"It really did provide a balance for the rest of the record. We just went from there," Spears says of the track, which was produced by Jimmy Harry and Shep Solomon, who have worked with such artists as Kylie Minogue and Clay Aiken.
Spears co-wrote seven of the album's 13 songs. "She has achieved what she set out to achieve, which was to make a mature album that didn't sound like something she would have done three years ago while still making a commercial album that has hit singles," Weiss says.
"It's a little moody. It's very dance-oriented and very mature," he adds. "It's the kind of record she should be making right now, and it came down to her to make it."
Spears has been highly visible, already appearing as musical guest on "Saturday Night Live." On Nov. 9, VH1 premiered her new installment of "Behind the Music."
She followed that up by kicking off MTV's Spanking New Music week with a performance in New York's Times Square and a one-hour "Primetime Live" interview with Diane Sawyer. Spears will also do the talk-show circuit, appearing on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "Good Morning America" and "Live With Regis & Kelly."
In the days before the album's release, Spears was scheduled for her own MTV special, "In the Zone and Out All Night." She is also set to perform "Me Against the Music" Nov. 16 at the American Music Awards. And on Nov. 17, there will be a one-hour ABC primetime special, "Britney Spears: In the Zone."
Excerpted from the Nov. 15, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services  section.
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