Our problem with Christina Aguilera was never, as people claimed of Britney, that she lacked talent. The problem was always that X-tina was always trying way too hard to convince us she was the Talented One, which was self-evident from the get-go but got annoying every time she reiterated it with some long, precocious vocal excercise in the middle of a perfectly good pop song. Linda Perry was smart in demanding that on "Beautiful" Aguilera simply sing the damn song as it was written, without all the filligree. On Christina's "Stripped" tour back in '03, almost everything else seemed overheated; the only genuine moment came at the end when, after a long night of ridiculous costume changes, she came out in a t-shirt and jeans, barefooted, and sang "Beautiful" not as if she were the Greatest Singer in the World but just, y'know, like you'd sing with your friends, if singing with your friends was something you did when nobody was looking. It was really great, and really sad, too, because there was so little of that joy elsewhere in her set.
The only other moment on that gig where she seemed to be doing what she wanted -- and not adhering to some misguided notion of what she thought would piss people off, which seemed to be at least half her motivation for that entire album cycle -- was when she covered Etta James's "At Last." Whether or not she really profoundly gets the blues, Aguilera does seem to enjoy the music intensely, and when word came that she was doing an album indebted to '40s and '50s jazz and R&B, two thoughts came to mind: a) she's probably making the record she wants to make, and b) it's probably going to be a bore. Her Etta had been technically flawless and practically lifeless, your typical community-theater Smokey Joe's Cafe version of jukejoint history. An album of that could be deadly.
Then DJ Premier showed up.
Latest reports have the album split between superstar megaproducers and Premier, who will presumably stand in as hip-hop's curator of the speakeasy era. The first single, "Ain't No Other Man," is his, and the song is refreshingly, deceptively simple: brassy in both senses, it's an escalatingly funky drum break punctuated by a two-note horn lick, like the sound of an old big band shaking the dust off. A few people have cited these elements in asserting some kind of structural similarity between this track and Rich Harrison's production on Amerie's "1 Thing" and Beyonce's "Crazy in Love." But for all practical purposes "Ain't No Other Man" doesn't sound anything like those songs, mostly because it's far more conventional than they are. Christina isn't trying to sing pop, she's trying to sing R&B in a much older sense, and at least on "Ain't No Other Man," the instructions seem to have been something along the lines of "Give me a beat people can dance to, then get the hell out of the way." For a re-introduction, it's high-energy and appealingly no-frills. But after a few listens, you begin to hope that someone, somewhere, remembered to write a few songs. Even with Premo on the decks, there's only so much you can do to dress up 1-4-5 without, y'know, whipping out the rolodex and ringing up a bunch of rappers. (If they go to the rolodex, though, they could do a lot worse than the dude who graces Premier's latest rap song, which will be the featured download in the post that appears a few minutes after this one.)
LISTEN: Christina Aguilera, "Ain't No Other Man" (mp3, via Spine Magazine)