True to its title, Stripped, the audacious new release from Christina Aguilera, strips away the last remnants of her previous teen idol persona and what's left is as real as it gets. The sixteen new tracks that comprise Stripped, including her sensational debut single, "Dirrty," showcases an unadorned, unfettered and fearlessly outspoken artist who has liberated herself, her soul and her music on an album that is as much a declaration of independence as it is a convincing demonstration of her fierce and original talent. Simply put, this is the real deal.
"When you're seventeen years old, green and inexperienced, you're grateful for any guidance and direction you can get." Says Christina on her rocket sled ride to the top following the 1999 release of her eponymously-titled debut album, with its string of consecutive chart toppers, including "Genie In A Bottle" and "What A Girl Wants." It was a feat she would repeat the following year with Mi Reflejo, the smash Spanish language version of her debut, followed by her hit holiday release, My Kind Of Christmas.
Ten million plus albums, a Grammy win for Best New Artist and a marathon round of world touring later, Christina began to fearlessly break free from the mass media mask that hid her true self, and the full scope of her talent.
"I felt trapped," she admits. "I was under the thumb of people who were mostly interested in keeping me doing exactly the same thing. But I'm not blaming anyone," she's quick to add. "You learn fast in this business and, once I knew where I wanted to go, I didn't let anyone get in my way."
Where she wanted to go, at least initially, was to her Los Angeles home where she could catch her breath, reconnecting with herself and her two canine companions. "I needed a break," she reveals. "I wanted to disappear into empty space for awhile. So much had happened in such a short time, and not only in my career. I'd gone through a breakup with my first real love and I began realizing that I should be experiencing a bit more of life than TV and recording studios, hotels and green rooms."
As well intended as her much-deserved hiatus may have been, the vocalist and songwriter still had to contend with the restless creative energy that had fueled her preteen trajectory from talent show contestant in and around her native Pittsburgh to international superstardom.
"I'm driven," is Christina's frank admission. "Even in the midst of touring, I was thinking about what my next album would be, writing bits and pieces of songs in journals and scrapbooks."
That album, like Christina's long overdue R&R, would have to wait. Unable to resist the lure of a promising creative collaboration, she joined forces with Pink, Mya and Lil' Kim on the smash "Lady Marmalade" single and video. That eye-popping slice of ear candy kept her front and center in the international spotlight even as she began, slowly and steadily, to lay the groundwork for a musical manifesto that would change all the rules.
"I was straight ahead about what I wanted to do," Christina continues. "For a long time, I'd been uncomfortable with the image that had been built around me and my music. It felt like I was pretending, trying to hide the real me, and hurting inside because of it. This time I was determined to step beyond the hype and glitter, to take it back down to the bare necessities. It was like starting all over again."
Yet at the same time, Christina's bold work-in-progress wasn't simply a reaction to the past. "I wanted to explore some of the music that had inspired me coming up," she explains. "I've always been a huge fan of soul. I love real rock & roll and hip-hop, of course, is one of my biggest influences. I wanted it all."
And what she wanted she set about to achieve with a relentless determination and a willingness to stretch her creative boundaries. "I've always thought recording was about attaining perfection," she reveals. "What I discovered making this album is that getting across real feelings is what's important. As much as possible, I wanted to have the listener right there in the studio with me. I wanted to introduce myself, to get down to it. What mattered was sharing what I was really going through...for the first time."
And the first and most formidable challenge for Christina was to assemble a supporting cast that, in her words, "weren't influenced by my old image." A ruthless process of elimination yielded a production and songwriting team that included, among others, Pink producer Linda Perry; the team of Redman and Rockwilder; Alanis Morrissette producer Glenn Ballard; fast rising studio wizard Scott Storch, as well artist/producer Alicia Keys.
Recorded over an eighteen-month stretch, with Christina firmly at the helm every step of the way, Stripped slowly but surely took shape, not only as an exercise in breathtaking stylistic diversity but as a resonant and revealing look into the mind and emotions of a young woman on the verge of personal and professional liberation.
The result is resonant and revealing original tracks that decisively shred Christina's squeaky clean persona, even as they set the stage for a career that, millions of albums and concert tickets later, is only now just getting started.
The proof is all over Stripped, from the opening notes of "Impossible," the smoky ballad by Alicia Keys, to the romantic revelations of "Can't Hold Us Down," featuring the persuasive production of Scott Storch; from the soaring affirmations of "Beautiful," to blistering licks of "Make Over," to the superheated funk of "Dirrty," featuring Redman and Rockwilder. "I loved 'Let's Get Dirty,'" Christina reveals, "So I asked Rockwilder to put something together kind of like that for me." She laughs. "What I got was a little too close, but then I figured, 'Why not?' The track is like an answer song to the original, only from a female point of view."
As much excitement and surprise as a first listening to Stripped might generate, there are other textures, urgent, honest and unguarded, that emerge with time. "Everything I sing about in 'I'm OK' is real," she asserts. "I took it right out of my life and I'm singing it right to my Dad." While another Stripped standout, "Can't Hold Me Down," may at first sound like payback to a certain superstar rapper, for Christina that's hardly the point. "I haven't got time for all that," is her retort. "I'm more interested in helping girls stand up for themselves. That's what the song is about - double standards and how we're supposed to look and act a certain way just to please men. If I have any influence as an entertainer, I want it to be optimistic and uplifting, to make this world a little better place to live."
For Christina Aguilera, it all begins by getting real. "This music is who I am," she confidently asserts. "You can take it or leave it, but I'm not going to change, not for anyone." In the end, she says, it's a tribute to the millions of worldwide fans who have made her a household name. "Fans grow up, too," she smiles. "We're all reaching out for something more real and if we really want it, we're going to find it. This album is for anyone who really wants it."