Miley Cyrus spent a good portion of her adolescence playing two people on a television show, so it makes sense that her new album has something like a split personality.
"Bangerz" is the fourth studio disc by the former star of the Disney Channel's hugely successful "Hannah Montana," which if you don't remember, featured Cyrus — the daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus — as both a normal teenager and her pop-star alter ego.
But if Cyrus at 20 is already an old hand at making records, she's new to the experience of calling her own shots, and on her first project since exiting the House of Mouse she appears determined to break in that license — at least when she's not second-guessing its powers.
Due Tuesday but streaming now on iTunes, "Bangerz" follows a summer of nonstop controversy for Cyrus, who stole this year's MTV Video Music Awards with an aggressively raunchy performance of her song "We Can't Stop." It was a moment that launched countless discussions about race, sexuality and the appropriate use of giant foam fingers.
There's plenty more provocation on "Bangerz," which moves away from the glossy electro-pop sound of Cyrus' earlier records toward a grittier, hip-hop-inspired vibe.
In the track "#GETITRIGHT," which features a slinky groove produced by Pharrell Williams (who also oversaw Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"), she sings, "I'm dancing in the mirror/I feel like I got no panties on." "SMS (Bangerz)" is a blast of bad-girl braggadocio, the title stands for "strutting my stuff," in which both she and her guest, Britney Spears, rap about replacing a man with "a battery pack."
And though the song is already 4 months old, "We Can't Stop" still astounds; it might be the calmest, most clear-eyed rebel yell since Janet Jackson's "Control."
Yet for all the attitude here — there's also "Do My Thang," a live-it-up club jam co-produced by will.i.am — "Bangerz" reveals that Cyrus isn't just a twerk-bot programmed to titillate (though there's always a need for one of those in pop music).
Of course, anyone who's actually listened to "Wrecking Ball," the chart-topping power ballad with the nudity-enhanced video, already knows that. Cyrus' singing throbs with what feels like an embarrassment of emotion — even to someone who couldn't care less about the status of her real-life relationship with "Hunger Games" hunk Liam Hemsworth.
She goes for a similarly introspective quality in the stately "Adore You" — in which she tells a lover, "We're meant to be in holy matrimony" — and "Drive," a mournful breakup song with buzzing dubstep synths. Her vocals are equally strong in the surprisingly Amy Winehouse-like "FU."
Cyrus also answers her critics directly in a handful of tunes that examine the reasons "you might think I'm crazy," as she puts it in the piano-laced "Maybe You're Right."
In "Love Money Party" she casts a skeptical eye on the Hollywood riches she's known since childhood, busting out an ace tautology — "When you get to the money, it ain't nothing but money" — over a hollowed-out beat by producer Mike Will Made It. And "Someone Else" suggests that no actor escapes his or her job without experiencing some psychic damage.
Neither is as arresting a statement as the relatively obscure folk tune Cyrus covered at last month's iHeartRadio Music Festival — the early-'70s Melanie song in which she accused the audience of picking her brain "like a chicken bone."
But Cyrus has time to develop this inside-out indictment of celebrity culture. As long as we remain obsessed with her antics, there's fuel for that fire.
Three stars (out of four)