Christina Aguilera’s video for her new single, ”Dirrty,” which presents her as the world’s skeeziest reptile woman, was her first declaration of independence from the teen-pop ties that supposedly bound her. That theme runs throughout Stripped, her first album of all-new, English-speaking pop since her 1999 debut. ”Sorry I break the mold/Sorry that I speak my mind,” she announces, with startling sourness, in a brief intro. Nearly every second of this overlong, 20-track workshop communicates the overwhelming struggles she endured — while trying to become a superstar by age 18.
Hardly the stuff of sympathetic drama, but it’s the least of ”Stripped”’s difficulties. Clearly afflicted with Premature Serious Artist Syndrome, last seen in Hanson, Aguilera wants to demonstrate the range of her interests. Accordingly, ”Stripped” dabbles in vampy soul, quasi-metal, piano-bar intimacy, quiet-storm R&B, bounce-bounce hip-hop, and semi-exotic rock, all of it dutifully accomplished. The album has moments: The ballad ”Beautiful” is more restrained and the metal strut ”Fighter” spunkier than one would expect from a dance-floor strumpet who loves to flaunt her lung power. But as her delivery flits from smoky-soulful to diva-inspirational, she exhibits plenty of elastic skill but little joy. For all her newfound freedom, Aguilera still sounds unhappy, not to mention unfocused.