By Mark Guarino
When Madonna lip-smacked Britney Spears at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, it boosted both careers, albeit briefly. Christina Aguilera received a piece of the action too, but was relegated to a footnote, a spurned pawn of the publicity machine that ultimately preferred blondes.
Three years later is her kiss-off: “Back To Basics” (RCA/Sony BMG), Aguilera’s ambitious third album that obtains the musical credibility never an option for her former Musketeer peer and a long gone possibility for the middle age Material Girl. Spanning two discs, it is her strongest songbook yet and one that is a worthy match for her super-sized lungs. Like many double albums, the bulk serves the ego that put it all together, but at least here the hits rise slightly higher than the misses. Old school R&B, funk, pop ballads and slow grinders give the singer an ample workout. The two main producers here — Linda Perry (responsible for “Beautiful,” Aguilera’s finest moment until now) and DJ Premier of early hip-hoppers Gang Starr — give the former teen queen ample space to show her chops, which are considerable.
If you’re operating an iPod, don’t hit shuffle: All you need to do is toss the second disc and you’re set. Aguilera shines through the first half of “Basics,” thanks to Premier’s simple aesthetic and understated hooks. The songs seem meant to erase the public image that Aguilera solidified with those chaps and infinite naked photo sessions from her last album. She wanted the world to know she wanted out of the teen pop market but the cartoon raunch and singles like “Dirrty” were hideous exit plans.
Dialing down the skank factor works in her favor. Horns, strings, and choir of voices compliment her pipes, resulting in standouts like “Ain’t No Other Man,” a funk celebration augmented by Premier’s turntable scratches. These songs are high on flash but are nuanced so that they create perfect pop moments. Aguilera has learned to use her voice in more subtle ways than the gymnastics she so easily can trigger on demand. There is genuine uplift in the gospel number “Makes Me Wanna Pray” (with organ work from guest Steve Winwood) and that feeling warms the smooth slow jams (“Without You,” “Oh Mother”). These songs work because the singer is fired up by the powerhouse backdrop, not how it usually works, in reverse.
When Aguilera disappears into the song, she creates stunning pop music. But as the dozens of photos that accompany this album demonstrate, she is first and foremost a junior diva vying for Cher’s tiara. The letdowns of “Basics” are the familiar celebrity complaints — including “F.U.S.S.,” directed at a former producer — and brand retreads (“Still Dirrty”) that are only here to endorse her role as a high pop priestess. The second disc, mostly produced by Perry, is the most serious misstep, a 31-minute stylistic romp (country blues, big band boogie, orchestral pomp) that does not take itself seriously. Injecting bawdy lyrics in an Andrew Sisters retread (“Candyman”) may seem like a clever idea, but it’s a one-dimensional novelty. The same goes for the rest of this section that feels burdened by the ugly production and soulless lyrics. By opening her album by namechecking heroes (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.), Aguilera promises inspiration but by journey’s end all that remains is hollow kitsch.