Mrs. Christina Aguilera’s ambition on this double LP, as she haughtily proclaims on “Back in the Day,” is to channel the spirits of Ray, Nat, Aretha, Otis, Etta, Billie, and Peabo. (OK, not Peabo.) And in a year that’s seen Jessica Simpson straight bite Madonna’s “Holiday” and Rihanna binge-and-purge Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” this goal comes off as strangely noble. For most of the first disc’s jazz/funk/soul cutups, Back to Basics showcases DJ Premier, who does exactly what he’s paid to do, which here includes trading licks with Steve Winwood. (Take that, Santana.)
A lot of it works: The ballsy horns on “Here to Stay” would put a smile on Isaac’s face, and single “Ain’t No Other Man” makes me wanna kiss mahself. But pop star-whisperer Linda Perry poops all over disc two. Tracks like “Candyman” and “I Got Trouble” replace deft sampling with studio gimmickry (um, fake Victrola scratches? No.). Only the spare acoustic guitar and strings that accompany Aguilera’s always capable voice on “Save Me From Myself” make this set memorable. (Wel, there’s also this boner from “Candyman”: “He’s a one stop shop/With a real big [suggestive groan].” Oops.)
Basics could have been great, a calculated risk that might have elevated Aguilera once and for all above her tabloid-splattered peers. But the diva wants it both ways: Lady Day never recorded a diss track about Scott Storch (“F.U.S.S.”), and 50 Cent (sampled on “Slow Down Baby,” wonder-douche Mark Ronson’s bologna sandwich of a contribution) hasn’t put out any 78s of late. She banks on projecting confidence, but just about every song is an equivocation: Why what I’m doing right now is the thing worth doing. Relative to Jessica, Britney, and such, Xtina may be the more liberated pop star, the Madonna to their Cindy Laupers and Paula Abduls. But the girl’s still full of insecurities—Billie and Etta didn’t make their names singing about themselves. They had more class than that, the kind you can’t buy with a dye job. Christina’s got the pipes, but she’s yet to find the soul.