By 2006, Christina Aguilera had successfully navigated out of teenybopper status, avoided the sophomore slump and was ready to make the year all about her third studio album Back to Basics. Described by the singer as "throwback with a modern-day twist" record, the project was an ambitious, double-album release that combined a wide variety of producers and unlikely musical elements, along with uncompromising visual components. Ten years later, Back to Basics stands as Aguilera's most cohesive release to date, and proof that, when given full artistic reign, the singer could create her own pop world.
Musically, Back to Basics was conceptualized as two varying takes on the music of the early 20th century. Disc 1 was comprised of modern-day, hip hop- and R&B-inspired tracks that mixed B.B. King, Gladys Knight and Biggie samples with feel-good soul production. Xtina called upon iconic '90s producer DJ Premier to produce a majority of the tracks, including lead single "Ain't No Other Man," making for one of the most unexpectedly thrilling pop collaborations of the decade. Other standouts on the disc included the Mark Ronson-produced kiss-off "Slow Down Baby," the gospel jam "Makes Me Wanna Pray," the record-scratch-heavy "On Our Way" and the sweet-soul ballad "Understand," which marked rapper/producer Kwamé's first A-list pop collaboration.
Disc 2 was a full-fledged exploration of yesteryear, recorded entirely with live instruments and the powerhouse's "Beautiful" co-creator Linda Perry. There was the Andrews Sisters-inspired "Candyman," the burlesque romp "Nasty Naughty Boy," the old-timey intro of "Enter the Circus"/"Welcome" and, most remarkably, "I Got Trouble," which was recorded with a vintage microphone to give off a Billie Holiday-esque vibe.
And Christina ensured that Back to Basics was rife with visual ideas. Boasting a look that recalled sirens like Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow, Christina was never seen promoting the album without bright red lipstick or big blonde hair, but kept things thoroughly modern with a cute dress, short shorts or headband. That vision was further amplified in her music videos (she created three different personalities for the three Andrew Sister characters in "Candyman"), tour (she had her dancers learn circus acrobatics and perform them on stage) even with the LP packaging (the cover boasted old-school stickers that we saw on 45 records).
While not as massive commercially as her previous two albums, Back to Basics was a success. The album is her best-reviewed to date; it went platinum, despite being a more expensive double disc; "Ain't No Other Man" won Best Pop Vocal Performance at the GRAMMYs; and its accompanying 2007 tour was the highest-grossing live run from a female headliner that year.
While Aguilera shows the world who she truly was on Stripped, BTB appeared to be the first time Xtina got to truly create a her own universe. The starlet recognized and owned that commitment in a 2006 interview with Blender magazine saying, "It's really true: With freedom comes a ton of responsibility. I'm the only one in charge of the ship now. And if it sinks, it's my fault."
“I'm the only one in charge of the ship now. And if it sinks, it's my fault.”-Aguilera in 2006
Back to Basics' follow-up, 2010's Bionic, is more or less regarded as a commercial and critical disappointment, but also seemingly saw the singer's vision compromised. Goldfrapp spent days in Xtina's studio and was confirmed by the singer herself to have collaborated on the record, but was nowhere on the final credits. Meanwhile, some of the album's best and most forward-thinking tracks were delegated to bonus-track status and, most tellingly, Bionic collaborator Daniel Hunt of Ladytron said the initial vision of the album was altered due to label pressures. Two years later came 2012's Lotus which felt rushed, and without a cohesive sound and look; there was little indication that the album was another grand creation directly from Christina's mind.
If all goes as planned, Christina's sixth studio album will be out in 2016. The timing should have given Christina enough time (it's been nearly four years since Lotus) and afforded her enough experiences (her engagement to fiance Matthew Rutler, the birth of her daughter Summer) to create another full-fledged experience. As an album like Back to Basics proves, when Christina's given full artist control, fully realized greatness can occur.