One day, either in this life or the next, Britney Spears will have to atone for unleashing Kevin Federline upon the world. A onetime backup dancer for Justin Timberlake, LFO, and Britney herself, Federline was not just a nonentity prior to romancing Spears, he was a nonstarter, a cog in the machinery of the lower rungs of the pop music industry and destined to be nothing more. But Brit-Brit, reeling from her momentary marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander, saw something buried behind the skeevy look in his eyes and decided that Kevin Federline was her soulmate. This was something that shook her to her core, so she decided to share him with the world, so we could all see just how special he is. Foremost among her efforts to explain the inexplicable was the unwatchable 2005 reality series Chaotic, which chronicled their banal courtship in numbing detail. A cursory glance at the show -- and, really, it was impossible to watch it for much longer than that -- revealed how desperately lonely Britney was at the moment she fell for Federline, who swiftly seduced her with a charm detectable only by Britney herself. He left his pregnant fiancee and young child, joined her on tour, and she fell completely under his spell, quickly marrying the former backup dancer, dragging him along to tabloid stardom and the delusions of grandeur that accompany such status. Well, stardom might be overstating it: notoriety is a more accurate term, since the average person on the street did not know who he was, and those who did -- mainly gossip mavens -- reveled in his loutish behavior, which was the only accomplishment outside of paternity he could call his own. Like Paris or Nicole, he was a celebrity, celebrated for nothing more than being Kevin.
And, like Paris or Nicole, he wanted more than just headlines to his name; he wanted something tangible to justify his stardom, something like a record. When there are millions of dollars in your family -- either by blood or marriage -- such dreams are attainable, so Kevin was on his way toward a recording career. Soon, he was dubbed as an "aspiring musician" in the tabloids, which soon gave way to "aspiring rapper." The fruits of his labor were first tentatively revealed when a portion of "Y'all Ain't Ready" was leaked on the Net toward then end of 2005. It may have lasted no longer than a minute, but that minute was jam-packed with memorable absurdity, most notably his timeless malapropism of calling paparazzi "Pavarottis" and his boast that his style was "straight 2008" when his sleepy drawl and backing track recycled every white wannabe-gangsta cliché from the past 15 years. Bloodied but not beaten, K-Fed -- which he was now being called, with absolutely no irony on his part -- unveiled his first full-length single on New Year's Day 2006. "PopoZao" -- a celebration of Brazilian ass -- was let loose on the Internet, where it was greeted with unfettered and deserved ridicule, as it lived up to the promise of "Y'All Ain't Ready." Both singles were awful, but they were gloriously awful, the work of a hack who believed he was a genius and was surrounded by yes-men who were either too well paid to tell him otherwise, or were laughing behind his back as they gave him enough rope to hang himself high. It was the kind of music that was a marvel because it was so naturally, inadvertently funny, and these two early singles raised expectations for Federline's debut, since they suggested that this had the potential to be a comedy classic -- something that would finally reward all of us who have had to put up with his smirking rat face for two years that have felt like an eternity.
Alas, such hope was in vain. Federline's debut album, Playing with Fire, is indeed bad, but it's bad in an uninteresting way; it's as dull and predictable as its title. Clearly, the early ridicule bestowed upon "PopoZao" and "Y'All Ain't Ready" had an effect upon Kevin -- not to inspire him to do better, but rather to not stray beyond the watered-down Snoop Dogg impression that turns out to be his signature. Ignore K-Fed's bragging -- to a synth line borrowed from "The Final Countdown," no less -- that he has that "hip-hop flavor mixed with a little bit of rock & roll"; there's nothing but outdated G-funk and West Coast beats here, music that's been heard countless times before, usually as the generic soundtrack to inner-city crime on CSI or Law & Order, and his stoned, self-satisfied drawl disappears into the repetitive, bass-heavy throb of the music. Indeed, whenever a guest is brought into the studio -- Ya Boy on the charming "Dance with a Pimp," Bosko on "Privilege," or Britney herself on "Crazy," where she sings the hook on the latest attempt to mythologize their pedestrian romance (not coincidentally, that hook is the only memorable piece of music on the record) -- they draw attention away from the man of the hour, because unlike him, they have some degree of presence and charisma. But if there is anybody listening to Kevin, they're not listening for the music or his skills as a rapper: they want to hear his lyrics, they want to laugh at him, not with him, as he strives to top "I know y'all wishin' you was in my position/Cause I keep gettin' into situations/That you wish you was in, cousin." And although he's "coming out like Janet's titty at the Super Bowl," he's not nearly as shocking as he'd like to believe or as amusing as his haters would hope: he just comes across as a big boob. He has some moments of insight ("I know I'm not a nerd/But I know how to calculate them birds"), has a way with a simile ("It's going down like a fresh pair of panties"), and a flair for left-field pop culture references ("I'm like Val Kilmer how I'm bringing this heat"), but throughout Playing with Fire Federline is far too serious about being taken seriously to get unintentionally silly, and the album is a bore because of it.
It's also a bore because he's a boor, writing endlessly about the same three topics: his alleged superstardom, his hatred of the media, his love of parties and dope. While the old rule that writers should write what they know may hold true, the unspoken part of that maxim is that the writing should either be interesting or done well, two goals that are well beyond Federline's reach. Never mind writing well: competence is barely within his grasp, as it often sounds like he can't quite understand the meaning of what he's saying, whether he's casually blaspheming ("Like Jesus in every way/I'm crucified every day"), suggesting that he loves dope as much as he loves his wife ("fell in love with the herbs just like my wife," which could indeed mean that Britney also loves ganja; either is possible, and it doesn't really matter which is true), serves up his career plans ("got tired of the drugs so I switched to rap"), and offers up a self-description so pungent and succinct it could stand as his epitaph: "This marijuana has got me heavily sedated/I'm Kevin Federline, America's Most Hated." He's onto something there: America does indeed hate him, but it's not an active, consuming hatred, it's a mild, persistent annoyance, the way that a dumbass brother-in-law gets on your nerves. And that's really what Federline is: the guy in your life that you wish would just quietly disappear, but he won't, since he's married into your family and you're now stuck with him. K-Fed may not be related to America by law, but as long as he's married to a superstar, we're stuck with him popping up a couple times a year, as if he wants to remind us that he is just as shallow, tasteless, and stupid as we remember -- and there is no greater testament to his utter emptiness than this stultifying record. Years, or perhaps months, from now after Britney has finally left this guy and he's disappeared to wherever Carlos Leon now spends his days, perhaps we'll all look back and laugh, but the worst thing about Playing with Fire is that it's too stale and inept to inspire laughter: it can only elicit weary groans, just the way another Pavarotti pic of K-Fed on the cover of US Weekly or Star does.