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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Christina Aguilera, Army of One

Exhausted by its excess, we near the end of Christina Aguilera’s “Not Myself Tonight” with a Polow Da Don–produced electro-mayhem bridge, synthesizers growling from the windows to the walls. If you’re following along with the video on YouTube, this would be the part where Xtina sucks a diamond-studded bondage gag and mounts some beau. But on record, she sounds more like she’s just finished clobbering a punching bag, fists still taped, when she deadpans, in a winded whisper, “Yah—I needed that.” Whew.

It’s an interesting admission, or maybe a justification for the preceding three oversung and oversexed minutes, wherein Christina—always up for oversinging, oversexing, or both—claims to be “doing things that I normally won’t do,” among them “feeling fine.” Left unasked is the question of whether you needed that—the bondage theme, the 10-octave tantrum, the synth war, all of that—but don’t expect the rest of her new album, Bionic, to inquire, either. The Excess Question has hounded her at every step on the road to Madonnadom, from her Mickey Mouse Club dalliances of yesteryear to the s/m club of “Tonight.” First with Britney, then with Gaga, the unfairly compared blend-in blonde has had to out-audition other star-kids since her Disney days, and continues to break glass like the judges have their pencils out.

If they do, they’ll all come to the same conclusion: Forget Lady Gaga. The basic threat to Christina’s identity is her own voice, the little circus trick living in her throat that regularly rumbles up to caricaturize the singer with ruptures like “mmrg-ya-ya-ya-yeah!” (Think “Lady Marmalade.” Briefly.) On Bionic, one of these outbursts is endowed with unexpected meaning when the exclamation “Woohoo!” on the track of the same name alludes to where “you put your lips where my hips are”—”Licky, licky,” she adds, in the interest of clarity.

But if her melisma usually seems vapid or indulgent, that’s just the Excess Question again, and as she makes abundantly clear across Bionic‘s 18 tracks, she’s going to give it to you anyway. Not only that, but she’s going to re-define, mid-giving it, who you’re getting it from. “Call me the supernova,” she insistently raps on the title track’s twitchy space-age rhythms, but wait: How do you spell that? “X-x-x-t-t-t-i-i-i-n-n-n-n-n-a,” stutters cyborg Christina, a sex machine programmed to assert its flawlessness. “Take me just the way I am,” crows a slightly more humanoid Christina over wistful shaker rustles on the ballad “I Am”—”I need you to see me,” she asserts, describing her unseen essence as “a lioness,” “naked,” and, of course, “beautiful.” Take her as she is, unless she takes herself: On the concise, synthed-up catwalk strut “Vanity,” she interrupts the proceedings to hum “Here Comes the Bride,” then snarls, “Now, I take myself to be my Lawfully. Wedded. Bee-itch!”

Go on, girl, I suppose. “I make myself so much wetter,” she remarks on “Vanity,” but isn’t that the problem? Impressive as the moxie pumping through Christina’s cold, careerist blood may be, the spectacle of a superhuman bedazzling herself with her various prowesses (singing, sex) leaves scant room for the outside world. On her American Idol–debuted “You Lost Me,” an ex-boyfriend—read: an outsider—causes her most vulnerable, un-bionic moment on the record: “You left me neglected,” she belts. But take note: She’s less vexed by what he did (“couldn’t keep your hands to yourself”) than what he lost (“me,” i.e., the high-note-gurgling bee-itch he’ll never lawfully wed.)

Her universe expands on “Elastic Love,” wide enough to accommodate two people. (That would be Christina and a wishy-washy crush whose “spastic love” is “like a pencil trying to write and you’re erasing me.”) The real amorous game, though, is between her and M.I.A., swapping sing-song-y rhymes and playground chants over the beat’s blips and bloops. It’s a fun duet, suggesting a two-girls-at-play theme that doubles in size when the significantly more regular folks in Le Tigre dial down Xtina’s Xcess on “My Girls.” Together, they cheer: “My girls, we’re stronger than one!”

It’s true. Remove her girls at play, and you’re left with Christina at work, pounding out precisely produced club-pop that moves bodies, if not spirits. On “Desnudate,” the entire throbbing, horn-squealing hook hangs on a suggestive moan—”nn-uh,” roughly—but damned if it doesn’t sound more like exercise than sex. As a creature, Christina is wound and rehearsed too tightly for the ups and downs of amour, but is just right for aerobics, which is why, despite all the comparisons to belly-throated pop sirens, the diva whose craft hers most deftly recalls is none other than James Brown’s. Like that other sex machine, Christina’s art is and is about hard work: labored yet cathartic drudgery that sweats, groans, and even hollers, but never loosens. When, amid the buzzsaw synths and handclaps on “Prima Donna,” Lil Jon exhorts y’all to “work yo’ body,” it sounds more like a call to shed pounds than bump or grind. She and Jon make a natural pair, really, the Prima Don and Donna of the guttural grunt: the hardest working-out people in show business, moving inert American bodies in a supposedly sexual but naggingly meaningless outburts of nn-uh‘s.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Nas’s Untitled

Controversy is clearly Nas’s best friend. The lively debate stirred up by 2006’s Hip Hop Is Dead was trumped many times over by his year-long proclamation that his next offering would be named Nigger. Wal-Mart, unsurprisingly, didn’t love that idea. So what hits shelves this week is simply Untitled, and there isn’t a typical banger to be found anywhere: The delicate piano intro to “Queens Get the Money” sounds like straight-up Alicia Keys until Nas launches his signature poetry-as-rap flow, half-Queensbridge reminiscin’, half braggadocios, and only a sprinkling of politico.

It’s not until the next track, “You Can’t Stop Me Now,” that his agenda starts to take shape, giving us a brief history lesson on racism over bluesy guitar and a Shaft-deep voice that booms, “As James Baldwin says/You can only be destroyed by believing/That you really are what the white world considers/A nigger.” Heavy stuff. “Breathe” continues in that vein, with watered-down, ’90s-style synths providing the backdrop to both a call to action and a lament: “In America, you’ll never be free/Middle fingers up, fuck the police/Damn, can a nigga just breathe?” After a brief non-political detour (assisted by not-so-engaging Polow Da Don and Cool & Dre tracks), Nas picks up the heavy baton again in a string of tracks that tackle the right-wing media (“Sly Fox”), challenge the support of his suburban fans (the heartfelt “Testify”), and muddle the meaning of a polarizing word (“Ya’ll My Niggas”).

By this point, unfortunately, it’s clear that he’s merely airing his racial frustrations rather than offering any solutions. Which is more than most rappers are doing, but it’d all go over much better if the beats were of the hard-hitting “Made You Look” or “One Mic” caliber. They’re not. (One misstep, the UFO tale “We’re Not Alone,” is actually fueled by a rainstick.) But then again, it’s lyrics, not beats, that drive Nas, and he reminds us of that with the Mark Ronson–produced “Fried Chicken,” wherein he joins Busta Rhymes in setting up a sex-as-soul-food metaphor, waxing poetic on ‘hood nutrition: “Don’t know a part of you that I love best/Your legs or your breast/Mrs. Fried Chicken, you gon’ be a nigga death.” Equal praise goes to the creativity in “Project Roach” (rapped from the perspective of an insect) and arguably the strongest track, “N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave and the Master),” which sums up the complexity of his subject over dramatic violins: “They say we N-I-double-G-E-Rs/We are much more/Still we choose to ignore/The obvious/We are the slave and the master/What you looking for?/You the question and the answer.”

From another perspective, though, the album boils down to a “Vote Obama” PSA; on “Black President,” Barack is mentioned for the second time and officially endorsed over marching-band drums and Tupac’s iconic lines: “And though it seems heaven-sent/We ain’t ready to see a black president.” Controversy aside, without any truly addictive tracks, you can’t consider Nas’s latest among his greatest. But it’s hard not to appreciate the effort.

Nas plays the Jones Beach Amphitheatre August 3.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Usher Doesn’t Have Sex Anymore

When a guy puts his newborn son’s gurgling noises on his album, it’s clear where his mind has shifted: Usher don’t wanna be a player no more. Settling down, as he’s done recently in real life, has that effect. So the foreplay that was 2004’s nearly diamond-selling Confessions mellows out to a more seasoned and tasteful fifth disc for Mr. Raymond, who turns 30 this year. Enter midlife observations and refined ballads made for dancing cheek-to-cheek. Exit unfaithful youth.

Like Confessions on sedatives, Here I Stand is a toned-down version of the Usher we know and love (unless, perhaps, you’re Chilli). Singing of the transition that every man-child experiences, the bad-boy-gone-good reproves his juvenile bachelor choices—the wild lifestyle kids don’t think of their parents as having had. Sex is still prominent, but it’s the kind not involving threesomes or infidelity or unplanned pregnancies that might later warrant admissions of guilt. “This Ain’t Sex,” while conjuring a disco-era MJ in all his sequined-bodysuit glory, speaks of sex as a privileged act between two consenting adults: “We ain’t having sex/We’re making moments that will outlast the world.” Whatever, you can dance to it.

Lovemaking (not sex!) also preoccupies the Polow Da Don–crafted chart-topper “Love in This Club.” And with a submission of the Robin Thicke variety, the guitar-assisted “Trading Places” praises the woman-on-top philosophy: “You gon’ pay for dinner/Take me to see a movie/And whisper in my ear how much you wanna do me.” A few falsetto orgasms later, Usher continues atoning for past mistakes and Stevie-Wonders it up a bit on the stark piano ballads. It’s the laying of more Xeroxed blueprints for younger maestros to continue replicating.

Blessed with that rare thing called talent, Usher has always had a strong voice that can easily drift from wavering tenor to fine-tuned falsetto, one that at times sounds convincingly urgent—burning, even. Here, it’s the Tricky Stewart soarer “Moving Mountains” that finds his words waterfalling over scattered synths (those ones TimbaLake started a trend with): “I know sorry just wouldn’t do it/My heart is obliterated/I’m tryna travel through/But it’s like moving mountains.” For the pretty bad “Best Thing,” Jay-Z supplies another of his eh guest verses amid other so-so mood-setters.

A little too sitting-on-the-dock-of-the-bay for Chris Breezy–trained earbuds, perhaps, Here I Stand is pure grown-man bidness. Not saying he’s gone all Lionel Richie on us; just don’t be surprised to see him electric-sliding at Diddy’s next White Party.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Kelly Rowland’s Ms. Kelly

Let’s face it: When it comes to the post-breakup ripples triggered by ball-busting chart-toppers Destiny’s Child, Kelly Rowland could never possibly approach the success (or radiant hotness) of Beyoncé. But Ms. Kelly succeeds on a smaller scale, starting with lead single “Like This,” an immaculate, balmy display of pop-r&b feminism, not to mention Rowland’s first real attempt at exploring her sexuality. Kelly’s fragile voice is often tender and usually dangerously whispery, as on “Ghetto,” a wholeheartedly successful rip of Destiny’s Child’s “Soldier”; still, the (frequent) slow jams here are technically pleasing as they ascend the rungs of womanhood and romantic relapse (see “Still in Love With My Ex”). The more manufactured pop productions (courtesy of Scott Storch, Polow Da Don, and others) are predict- ably saccharine—see dreadful album closer “This Is Love”—but “Show,” a monstrous duet with Tank, capably sketches out a pair of either horny teen- agers or deprived adults. Though the grass is always greener on Beyoncé’s side— the weave longer, the sex better—Ms. Kelly still showcases a star who shines brightest in the shadows.