SOLD!: The easy explanation for Aguilera’s success starts with simple marketing and deteriorates into cynicism.
If Christina Aguilera’s new album is her idea of getting Back to Basics (RCA/BMG), what does this pop princess do when she when she wants to get fancy? It boggles the imagination. As this executive producer, principal songwriter, and back-to-blonde bombshell explains in the package’s “Back to Basics Bonus Video,” her album is a tribute to the “blues, jazz, and soul artists” whom she’s loved since she was a little girl, divided into two CDs. The first features 13 hip-hop-inflected updates of classic soul styles, produced primarily by DJ Premier, of hip-hop’s long-running and deeply respected duo Gang Starr; the second rummages among styles even older, from boogie-woogie to big-mama blues, in nine tracks produced and co-written by Linda Perry, the former 4 Non Blondes alt-rocker who’s recently helped shape the careers of tween-pop sensations from Pink to Aguilera herself.
Of course, this tribute to R&B from the late 1930s to the early 1970s is what the former “Xtina” means by “the basics.” But you also get oh so much more. The first disc does indeed feature many numbers in which Christina deep-throats soul styles that recall Little Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and, uh, Aretha Franklin. But then, midway, she detours into “Oh Mother,” a minor-key contemporary pop ballad recalling the hard times she and her mom went through at the hands of Christina’s abusive dad; that’s followed by “F.U.S.S.,” a hip-hop dis to former producer Scott Storch. She also sidesteps her retro program for “Still Dirrty,” a staccato hip-hop strut that defends her infamous single and video “Dirrty,” and a couple of big, shapeless, crossover R&B ballads that recall her most pernicious musical inspiration, Mariah Carey. And she closes with “Thank You (Dedicated to Fans),” in which DJ Premier remixes snatches from Christina’s first hit, the 1999 teen-pop smash “Genie in a Bottle,” with telephone messages from members of her official fan club. (“My name is Jessica Cavanaugh. I just wanted to let you know that you are truly one of the best artists that I have ever come across.”) What starts as a tribute to “Aretha and Miles” ends as a far more loving tribute to Christina Aguilera’s first and greatest inspiration, Christina Aguilera.
Disc two opens with the inexplicable “Enter the Circus,” a surreal waltz that slides into “Welcome,” a symphonic ballad about the travails of stardom that could make Emerson Lake & Palmer blush. That’s followed by a short string of songs in which Christina delivers the goods promised in her bonus video, goods that include the salacious “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” update “Candyman” and an xxxplicit strip-joint blues, “Nasty Naughty Boy” (“I’m going to give you a little taste/Of the sugar below my waist”). Then we get the tender Beale Street blues “I Got Trouble,” which features scratchy LP hiss and a handkerchief-muffled mike. And that’s it. Despite all the packaging promises, the second disc also detours into contemporary pop ballads, starting with “Hurt,” which recalls Elton John’s “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word,” and closing with a string-drenched hymn to her new marriage, “The Right Man.”