CHRISTINA AGUILERA 'BACK TO BASICS' (RCA)
Between the "Dirrty" video and the detailed schematics of her piercings, Xtina was badly in need of an image overhaul, and that's what she's been up to the past few years.
It turns out, she cleans up nicely.
The petite singer with the potent voice makes her long-awaited return to the pop market with an adventurous and risky two-disc set that stakes her claim as the career artist she's long been hyped to be.
Aguilera promises early on that we're "Gonna rewind, to another time/when the originators, innovators were alive" and tosses out the names of Etta James, Marvin Gaye and Coltrane, while alluding to her r-e-s-p-e-c-t for Aretha. Real roots are what has long set Aguilera from her teen-pop contemporaries, and, despite being only 25, she's earned the status to indulge herself here. However, while she's doing those shout-outs on "Back in the Day," there are turntable scratches and heavy beats, indicating that for Christina, this isn't a period piece.
Disc One is actually a bit here and there. "Makes Me Wanna Pray" kicks it off with an exciting gospel rave-up centered around the piano riff of Steve Winwood's "Glad" that basically has Christina thanking Jesus for delivering that nice Jewish husband of hers. "Ain't No Other Man," "Understand" and "Slow Down Baby" keep her on the track of torchy old-school soul that lets her limitless voice run wild and free.
She changes the tone with "Oh Mother," a tearjerker that deals with her mama's flight from domestic abuse, and "F.U.S.S.," a disposable dis track directed at absent producer Scott Scorch (get it?). "Still Dirrty" puts her back in touch with Xtina, voicing her sexual independence -- "Why is a woman's sexuality always under so much scrutiny/Why can't she do exactly as she please" -- but the spare funk falls flat. "Here to Stay" seems like a step back to the first record and "Thank You" bores us with fans telling us how much they love her. As Disc One crawls to a finish, we can only shudder at the thought of a Disc Two.
But don't fear. Once you get to Disc Two, you might want to throw away Disc One. This is where Aguilera hooks up with Linda Perry and really starts to nail this retro concept. "Candyman," the swingiest single since Brian Setzer jumped, jived and wailed, is a nod to the Andrews Sisters, but with Christina going new millennium with, "He's a one-stop shop/makes the panties drop." Steam rises up out of the CD player on "Nasty Naughty Boy," an ooh-la-la burlesque number with Christina cooing, "I got you breakin' into a sweat/got you hot, bothered and wet."
Perry and Aguilera do a masterful job of capturing the essence of an old Bessie Smith record, complete with crackles and pops, on "I Got Trouble."
By track 6, though, they've had it, and once again ditch the concept. The only consolation is that it does allow Christina to show a different side, as Perry bangs out a piano track that sounds like Fiona Apple borrowing "Ballad of a Thin Man" on "Mercy on Me." Christina comes full circle with "The Right Man," an orchestral piece that ends the record on a touching note -- Aguilera doing her bridal march alone, imagining a different future for the daughter she hopes to have: "And one day my little girl/Will reach out her hand/She'll know I found the right man."
By this point, Aguilera has won us over. We can cast aside her former trashiness and petulance and wish her the best. With "Back to the Basics," she's demonstrated that she's grown as a singer, writer, artist and person. And the photos ain't bad, either.
But, really, she should have listened to Clive Davis. He wanted a single disc, and he's a wise man.
-- Scott Mervis
RICK ROSS 'PORT OF MIAMI' (DEF JAM)
It took time for mainstream ears to catch up to the crunchy hip-hop innovations and saucy rap solicitations of the South. But the floodgates opened, and from Houston to Savannah, deliciously dark screeds and bumpy, bassy grooves rained down like manna, courtesy of its most surefire vets.
No one's more vet than Rick Ross.
After holding back the vividly described tears (think Jay Z, but mumbled) and the coke-trade tremors for 12 years, this third of Florida's Slip-N-Slide crew stirred his brand of summer anthem with the noir storytelling and grind-house orchestration of "Hustlin'." Ross' look-see at cooked-rock night crawlers and haute couture ballers doesn't stop at that song. Like something by a more luxurious Young Jeezy, tweaked druggy doom gets dressed up more dramatically than "Miami Vice" on the Jazzy Phae-produced honker "For Da Low" and the uneasily humorous "White House." But Ross, like any forlorn baddie through the bluesiest lament, looks to God and goodly destiny ("Prayer") for the hope beyond the evil.
Solidly told and solidly sold, this.
-- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer
TRACE ADKINS 'DANGEROUS MAN' (CAPITOL)
There's a line between capitalizing on a breakthrough hit single and exploiting it, and Trace Adkins straddles that line when he closes his eighth album with a dance remix of "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." Pity the fan who picks up Adkins' new "Dangerous Man" believing they're getting the original version of the crossover smash, instead getting a klutzy disco reworking that erases its leering charm.
Tacking the remix onto "Dangerous Man" taps into the album's calculated nature. Repeatedly, the 6-foot 6-inch former offshore oil rigger strains to re-ignite the careening fun of "Badonkadonk" with second-rate rewrites, such as his new single, "Swing," and the goofy hip-shaker "Southern Hallelujah."
On the other hand, the title song finds an effective way for Adkins to rock his drawling baritone -- his macho persona works better at celebrating American toughness rather than relying on cute wordplay. Best of all, ballads like "I Came Here to Live" and "Words Get in The Way," with their moral dilemmas and sensitive portrayal of love, prove that Adkins can offer depth and variety beyond novelty dance hits.
Adkins has the nation's attention now; he should use it to show how broad his talent can be rather than act like he's little more than a swaggering party animal.
-- Michael McCall