At the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards, there was one pop star with more at stake than any other that night: Britney Spears.
Her last appearance — in 2007 — was a disaster, with the singer famously stumbling through her performance.
Not so this year, when Spears — long since removed from the time when she was a tabloid fixture and late-night punchline, slinked across the stage to her steamy comeback single, “Make Me,” the lead track from her recently released album, “Glory.”
Spears' much-hyped return to the VMAs last month helped launch her album. "Glory" debuted at No. 3 on this week's Billboard 200 after selling 111,000 equivalent album copies, according to Nielsen Music.
For "Glory," her ninth album, the singer opted for tradition at a time when artists such as Frank Ocean, Rihanna and Beyoncé are finding new ways to redefine conventional releases.
"What we didn't want to do was a secret release in the middle of the night," RCA President Tom Corson said of her label's strategy.
"Pop audiences want to hear something. They want to be informed and educated about [an album] to some degree. Before the advent of streaming, we would have eight- to 12-week setup cycles for major superstar acts."
The lead-up to "Glory" was condensed into a "very reasonably tight window," with a six-week promotional blitz that culminated with the VMAs, an appearance on James Corden's wildly popular "The Late Late Show" segment "Carpool Karaoke" and a mini-concert on "Today" that was beamed from Spears' hit Las Vegas residency, "Piece of Me."
Work began on the album a year and a half ago.
"I wanted to go after a whole different vibe and try new things," the singer said via e-mail ahead of a recent Vegas performance.
Yet after she cut a lot of material, she was unhappy with its direction.
"It's a developmental process," said her longtime manager, Larry Rudolph. "Usually, the first handful of songs is part of figuring [things] out … and getting to a point where she feels like, 'OK, this is it.' "
Karen Kwak (Rihanna, Big Sean) was brought in to executive produce the album and help Spears find direction. The goal was to explore the urban and electro-pop beats that drove "In the Zone" and "Blackout," two of her more experimental and lauded albums.
"Make Me," produced by English DJ-producer Burns (Ellie Goulding), who also co-wrote the track with Spears, Joe Janiak and the song's featured guest, G-Eazy, steered her toward a more alternative, R&B-influenced sound.
The lush, down-tempo bedroom number, released in July, showcases a more subdued vocal from Spears, offering a departure from the Vocoder and Auto-Tune effects that have dotted her most recent work. It's a mature alternative to the dance floor-minded singles she'd used to launch prior albums.
"It felt like we were on a roll after 'Make Me,' " Spears said of the single, which debuted at No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this summer. "It was very exciting for me."
When asked what inspired the album, some of her sexiest and most carefree work, Spears was as straightforward as "Glory's" roll-out: "Really just my love of music and wanting to make an amazing album that I could be proud of and my fans would love."
The album, however, didn't arrive without hiccups.
Its cover was lampooned by fans, and the subtle Randee St. Nicholas-directed music video for "Make Me" sparked an Internet conspiracy, as it was much different from a racy version shot by famed director David LaChapelle, which partially leaked online.
There were rumors that Spears rejected the clip because it was too sexy.
"It's really simple. The video just didn't work," Rudolph said. "This is the first time we've re-shot a video, and because it's Britney there are all kinds of conspiracies. Nobody is hiding anything."
While the video "controversy" ultimately helped the single rebound on the charts, the album's leak ahead of its release (a retailer in Mexico mistakenly issued it a week early) was a damper.
"[It] was annoying," Corson said. "But in this day and age, the whole drama and anxiety around leaks is that as long as they are fairly well contained, we can manage and we can turn lemons into lemonade."
Spears' Vegas show has continued to pack crowds regardless of new material. She's contracted through the end of 2017, after last year signing an extension worth $35 million. It makes the question of whether or not "Glory" becomes a hit feel subjective.
"She still appeals to an active, younger pop demographic, so we try to keep it traditional but at the same time cutting edge," Rudolph said. "It's not like we're just trying to follow the trends of whatever younger artists are trying to do."
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