Yesterday the Weekly published my piece revisiting how October 2006 was the one month where the entire music industry changed. Part of that was how Kevin Federline’s Playing With Fire hit store shelves and really was the last gasp of the celebrity-turned-musician wave before the entire industry was in far too dire straits to run to that well again. While you may not be able to name a single song off of Playing With Fire, if you were a music fan or somewhat cognoscente of pop culture in 2006, you knew that it at least existed. Given it turns 10 this Halloween, I think it’s time we give it a proper listen to determine what Playing With Fire really was. While realistically the idea of Playing With Fire: Revisited is probably much closer to Playing With Fire: Visited, these 12 tracks (11 tracks and one hidden) were completed, manufactured, shipped and sold. This was a real album, it’s time to treat it like one.
But before we dive in, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s absolutely impossible to evaluate Playing With Fire in a vacuum. Kevin Federline was the husband of the biggest pop star in the world and thrust into the public spotlight as an admittedly great dancer. He and Britney shaped the narrative of their relationship and how K-Fed was seen. Their reality show Chaotic, which aired on UPN, alleged to be the couples’ home movies as edited and presented by them. We got to know K-Fed as a dancer and boyfriend/fiancé, but given the relative obscurity compared to his wife, he had to be more.
Rumors of K-Fed being a rapper bubbled for months once the couple became inseparable, with the constantly repeated quote attributed to Britney being he’s “got flow.” As 2005 turned to 2006, we got the Disco D produced snippet of “Y’all Ain’t Ready” and the infamous “Popozão,” neither of which made it to Playing With Fire. We also got The Game bigging up Kevin in an interview and raving about their collaboration, which also never made it to Playing With Fire. Really, the only announcement about Playing With Fire that the album unquestionably delivered on was its original October 31, 2006 release date when very, very few hip-hop albums ever have followed-through on that particular promise. The world needed this album as soon as possible, and K-Fed wasn’t going to break his word.
K-Fed also wasn’t going to let the world break him. The aforementioned “Popozão” was brutally eviscerated by critics and fans, with edits of Federline premiering the track on MTV becoming one of the very first viral memes ever on the less-than-a-year-old YouTube. With his passion, his marriage, and his very existence within our collective conscience making him a source of unbridled bottomless hatred, Federline couldn’t help but embrace the dark side. Let’s be real, when you’re the absolutely most hated and lowest thought of person in pop culture, it’s going to affect how you carry yourself in your day-to-day life no matter who you are. For Federline, he embraced this role as a real life heel by making Playing With Fire his weapon of choice to further fan the flames.
For someone whose first single “Lose Control” and its 2006 Teen Choice Awards performance being of such a celebratory nature, Playing With Fire is one of the most volatile mean-spirited records you will ever hear. You rarely hear debut albums this overtly bitter, but for someone who woke up each morning to having millions of people mock him and call him unsatisfactory in every single measure of his life, he spends the 43 minutes deliberately trying to get the public to hate him more. He brags about his money, women loving him and his riches with a callous, borderline-nihilist approach to just having it around him all the time. While this isn’t particularly new ground for a rap album, we very seldom get a glimpse at the person behind or beyond the hate. It’s a giant affirmation of “you were right to hate me.” The snake bites the farmer because he’s a snake.
While early on there are a few signs that Federline is capable of self-awareness, most notably in opener “The World is Mine” where he states “I make music America can feel / don’t get it twisted ‘Popozão’ was for Brazil.” Whether you think he’s making a clarification or an excuse, it’s a firm differentiation that this product will be what a Kevin Federline American rap album is like. Or is it?
The most challenging aspect of the album is how frequently Federline changes from some sort of Lothario to the guy who is married to a “pop princess.” While concept of a rap “A.K.A.” was done to death by the mid-aughts, this is the one album where for simplicity’s sake it could have really benefitted. It makes his first-person tales of seduction on “Dance With a Pimp” and “Privilege” really off putting, especially considering their proximity to Britney’s sole appearance on “Crazy” where the hook is her openly stating people think she’s crazy for being in any sort of romantic involvement with him.
As for the lyrics, it was commonly reported around this time that Federline recorded the album “Jay-Z-style,” writing the lyrics in his head without writing them down and performing them that way. You can really tell in the delivery that it’s close enough to freestyling where you can gauge how Federline’s mind works. On “Privilege” (which is sadly not about his own privilege, but rather having fun drinking the Hennessy drink of the same name) “It’s going down like a fresh pair of panties / Kev look better than a couple pair of Grammys” and “She calls me Daddy, but I’m not her father.”
He closes the titular track with the worst timed Wizard of Oz reference you’ll ever hear, as if he just remembered at the last second to say it and tried to make it work. While their is something to the conviction in his flow and his unshakable confidence in delivering lines like “How much cake the pancake man had” and kicking off a 10-bar rhyme scheme with “A league of my own, you regular I'm rugby / don’t judge a book by its cover, I'm Mugsy” and then rhyming that couplet eight more consecutive times. He knows multis (rhyming several syllables in several lines consecutively) sound good and really wants to prove he can do it. Given this was prime Dipset era, and the production follows the non-snap prevalent glossy beats of mainstream east/west/south hip-hop at the time, the template was there for this record to maybe have a shot if anyone other than the most despised entity in the medium was at the helm.
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Knowing all this, if any good will and sympathy for K-Fed’s lose-lose position was created over the course of hearing Playing With Fire, the hidden bonus track “Middle Finger” does everything in its power to make sure you finish the album with as much scorn for Federline as when you started it. I’d speculate this was the last song recorded for the album hence it not being on the artwork, and as a result it’s the almost disturbing sound of a man at the end of his rope and really, really angry at the world. Federline’s middle fingers no longer feel like the default pose for creating his bad boy image the way struggling insecure entities rant online about “haterz,” but rather his last line of defense to internalize the role the world seemingly wants him to play and become the most vile self-obsessed villain in existence.
It’s legit disturbing to hear him say “This is Hell on Earth and I ain’t going down slow,” and when I heard him actually rhyme that he was “Like Jesus in every way / I’m crucified and slayed,” I sat gobsmacked for a good five minutes, only moving to rewind the track and make sure I heard what I thought I heard. Kevin Federline, in a song about giving the entire world the middle finger, is claiming to be an indistinguishable facsimile of Jesus Christ. Well, except that he rhymes that with “Watch me die, then I rise on the seventh day,” which makes him different in at least one way we know for sure. Federline continues down the braggadocios-martyrdom hole, resulting in the album closing on one of the most unsettlingly bleak hellscapes I’ve ever heard in any genre.
There’s a lot of be said about the fall-out of the album release and what happened to Federline’s personal life around this time (I said most of it when revisiting his NYC album release show on its 5th anniversary in 2011) but to hear Playing With Fire today as an artifact of the same celebrity-turned-musician culture that gave us the platinum success of Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff in the mid-aughts is almost a cautionary tale of fame. While Federline has recently returned to music in more of a producer/eye-for-talent role and did collaborate with Bong Thugs N Harmony in 2009 for a song that sadly remains unreleased, make no mistake about it that Playing With Fire is indeed an album that really existed. If there’s ever a Playing With Fire II, we’ll be listening.