When she first stepped on the scene in 1999, it became quite obvious that Christina Aguilera possessed more talent than the rest of the huge wave of teen stars that arrived in the late ‘90s. Her voice was big, and quite reminiscent of glory-days Mariah Carey. What immediately differs between the two is Christina’s desire to be seen as risky and edgy, both sartorially and musically. While her first album was safe (but well-sung) pop, her follow up, 2002’s Stripped, found Christina doing a little bit of soul, a little bit of rock, and well… a little of EVERYTHING. It was ambitious, and mostly satisfying, but was at times overlong and inconsistent.
Four years later, she’s back… with a DOUBLE album! Christina’s been touting Back to Basics as a nostalgia trip, which isn’t totally true. Although there are a few songs that pay tribute to the past, the majority of this album fits in with today’s contemporary pop/R&B. Christina’s big voice dominates all of the tracks, but she’s slowly learning the art of subtlety and only intermittently indulges in her bad habit of singing so loud and hard that she chews up all the musical scenery.
The musical touchstones that are referenced on Basics (certainly it’s beat-heavy first disc) are primarily ‘60s and ‘70s soul and funk, updated with of-the-moment hip-hop production flourishes and samples. I give Christina props just for enlisting the services of Gang Starr’s DJ Premier, certainly one of the best producers in hip-hop history. Primo’s jazzy breaks and thumping beats are perfect for Christina to ride on top of (as evidence by catchy first single “Ain’t No Other Man”), but other producers bring the goods as well. One standout track, “Understand”, is produced by Kwame (the polka-dotted hip-hop wonder of the early Nineties), and it’s a swaying slow jam that takes an unfamiliar loop and a strangely shifting musical structure and creates one of the more interesting tracks on the set.
There is a slightly autobiographical slant to this album, as it essentially reads as a long love letter to Christina‘s husband, Jordan Bratman. “Makes Me Wanna Pray” (which features Steve Winwood on organ) is one of those songs that will get you testifyin’, with a gospel feel and some soulful wailing. “Without You” is a breezy, midterm offering that sounds like a Stevie Wonder track as sung by Mariah Carey. On the opposite side of things, the stunning “The Right Man” (as featured on the Linda Perry-produced second disc), is a hushed ballad with swirling strings and Gregorian-like choral sweetening to create a fantastic (if offbeat) wedding-themed song. Perry’s side of the project is the one that takes the most risks, and also the side that is the most divergent in quality. For every track like the big-band pastiche “Candyman”, there’s a track like “I Got Trouble”, with it’s scratchy, muffled vocals. It winds up sounding more like a pastiche than a tribute to the vocalists that molded her.
The album’s standout track ends up being the Perry-helmed ballad “Mercy on Me”. Now, while there are definitely moments of unnecessary over singing on this album, this is one of the songs where every scream, shout and moan is justified. It finds Christina leaving pop/R&B far behind for a singer-songwriter confessional worthy of Fiona Apple. While it’s obvious at some points that Christina is attempting to put herself in a class of singers (Aretha, Billie Holiday) who are way out of her league, songs like this offer a glimmer of hope that she will one day rise to that exalted level. In order to do that, however, she should probably avoid songs like “Thank You”, which was probably meant to be a sweet love letter to her fans (complete with voice mail messages left by folks who love her music), but ends up being more than a bit self-serving and egotistical.
Musically and vocally, Christina isn’t exactly where she thinks she is yet. She still shouts at times when a coo will do, and she seems to be self-involved in a way that her predecessors were not, and that can lead to occasionally bad music. However, Back to Basics is a challenging piece of pop that manages to look backwards and forward at the same time. Good taste in collaborators and a voice that has the capability to head heaven-bound all combine to make this an inconsistent, but ultimately rewarding listen.