Who woulda thunk it: Christina Aguilera has put out an LP that is more Hip-Hop than DJ Shadow's latest release. She is also this generation's Madonna (sorry, Britney). This, all on the strength of a 22-track opus, Back to Basics, which has Christina revisiting the music she was brought up on: classic Soul, Jazz, R&B, all mixed in a Hip-Hop mindset (CD1), and a plethora of older sounds (Swing, ragtime Jazz) on the 2nd disc. You can essentially break down the CDs like this: disc 1 is helmed mainly by DJ Premier, who makes the album that Nas wishes he could make with Primo; Linda Perry (writer for Xtina, Pink, and many other artists) has the reigns held tight on CD2. She digs down deep, going from many tracks dedicated to her new husband, while others highlight her love for artists we have all grown to love and emulate (Aretha, Etta, Marvin, etc). And in doing all of this, Christina has done what Justin Timberlake did with Justified: she has set herself apart from the rest, and shown that she is more than just a Mouseketeer who can rock a summer-long tour.
The first single, the Primo-laced "Ain't No Other Man", is her first ode to her hubby. Over a faster paced bevy of dusty breaks and bright horns, Xtina proceeds to let her man know that ain't no one else doing it for her, and he should let everyone know she's on lock. This track, and the accompanying video, are the first hint of true Madonna-chameleon style: Christina threw away the chaps, turned up the soul, and just belts out. And she sounds like she's truly enjoying herself. I keep referring to Madonna because she is the best example of a pop artist reinventing themselves on each album. And this even feels more genuine that Timberlake purchasing crazy ghetto passes. There's an article in Rolling Stone where she talks about her grandmother's help in shaping her voice, playing her a load of older records, and Christina being able to channel their songs perfectly, and that's something you can hear in her songs, then and now. It's just that she is wearing those influences right on her forehead, as opposed to hiding them underneath cheeseball production. No other producer could have done it like Premier, either. "Back In The Day" has me reminiscing of the Gangstarr track from the Mo' Better Blues soundtrack in its feel and appreciation for the old school. For those who think Xtina doesn't still get grimey, she let's you know that she still has those tendencies on tracks like "Still Dirrty" and "Here To Stay". They are hot tracks, both freaking hot horn loops, but seem kind of out of place compared to some of the subject matter: "Oh Mother" is a somber love letter to her own mother, detailing a tough situation in their life. The gospel-flowing "Makes Me Wanna Pray" takes it right back to the church, full of wicked organ flourishes and what sounds like the whole state of Alabama on backing vocals, all professing her love for the man that has basically saved her from wallowing in despair. And this wouldn't be a Christina album without a lil' drama: "F.U.S.S.", whether she wants to admit it or not, is directed to Scott Storch, whom she had a falling out with during the making of this album, something about plane expenses or some nonsense. He fucked up though, this CD is gonna do numbers. The standout track on this disc, for me, is "Thank You (Dedication To Fans)", which does exactly what it says on the tin: with an awesomely cut intro of "Genie In The Bottle" over a vintage Primo boom-bip, Christina shouts praise to her dedicated fans, even letting their recorded voices shout praise back to her. It can sound like the oddest pat-on-the-back, but the lyrics are too sincere to feel like a Kanye-esque swollen head moment.
The second disc is where Christina and Linda Perry delve into even murkier territory, producing some true diamonds in the rough. The twisted intro of "Enter the Circus" is a bit too eerie for me, but it is a perfect lead in to the episodes that come forth. "Candyman" is a straight up swing track, funked up with a bit of the Hip-Hop, complete with her boppin' vocals. It's a sly number, for this Candyman does not deal in chocolate or murder... he does make her "cherry pop", if you catch her drift. My favorite track, "Save Me From Myself", finds Christina going very blues-y over just some beautifully plucked guitar strums and strings. Her voice is so soft, and the words just hit you right in the ticker. The next track, "Mercy On Me", sounds more Fiona Apple than blues, but she holds her own on this lazy number. The filter on "I Got Trouble" really transports her sound to the early 1920s, when the turntables had large cones to project the sound and the singers had more soul in their pinky toe than most of these new jack fakers have in their entire budget. The only qualm I have with disc 2 is that while the first disc sets itself up as a running theme throughout the 13 tracks, this disc seems to be a bunch of outtakes, or rather singularly themed tracks. This takes nothing away from their power or quality, but it is a bit disheartening when you get off the high of that beautiful 1st disc to a sort of mish-mash of sounds and styles on the 2nd.
While there are some missteps (too many "Fighter"-sounding cuts on the 2nd disc, and a few tracks on the first that mimic Mariah a bit too much), Christina has taken her career into her own hands, which grants her much respect and is a plus if she is truly trying to have her name uttered with the same passion as people say "Aretha" or "Billie". Can she continue this quality? Will her fans take well to her change in sound? How will she pull this off on tour? No matter how the chips fall, something tells me she will land on her two tiny feet, polished and ready to take us on another wild ride.
rock the dub gives this album an 8 out of 10: a surprising turn for a gifted artist, Christina is stepping out onto uncharted territories, and gains crazy respect with each twist and turn.
Back to Basics is out NOW. Check it out on Amazon. If you want to get more info on Christina, check out her official website.