The story of the rebellious and angsty young adult in music is a tale as old as time. They get their record deal, start making music, and suddenly find themselves unsatisfied. They aren’t making the music they want to and are often feeling controlled. Thus, they rebel.
Mariah Carey had one of the most notable transformations of the last few decades. Her rebellion on 1997’s Butterfly embraced a stripped-down, sexy image and heavier reliance on R&B and hip hop than previous efforts. It also served as a direct defiance to abusive ex-husband and label head Tommy Mottola’s controlling hand. It set the tone for Carey’s career from there on out.
Mariah was a huge influence on Christina Aguilera. As Christina recorded her debut album, she listened to Carey’s albums on repeat and studied her riffs. She even wrote a song for her debut based on Carey’s 1990 piano ballad “Vanishing.” “I Will Be” didn’t make the final tracklist for her debut, but was released as the b-side to Stripped’s lead single, “Dirrty.” It also makes its digital/streaming debut on the newly released 20th anniversary edition of Stripped.
After notching zero writing credits on her debut and being built up as a big-voiced bubblegum star, twenty-one year-old Christina popped the bubble. She fired her management, replaced them with industry power-player Irving Azoff, and did a heavy rebrand. She also co-wrote all but two songs on Stripped, and even racked up her first production credits, co-producing nearly half the album.
Stripped is, without a doubt, Christina Aguilera’s magnum opus. Over twenty, yes twenty tracks (which does include a few interludes), she embodies the album’s title, empowering herself to strip down, both literally and figuratively. On the album’s black and white cover Christina stands topless in a pair of american flag jeans, front and center. Her eyes are shut, she’s posed with a bend at her hips, extensions covering her bare breasts, and arms above her head. It’s a statement in its own: Christina’s bubblegum era is over, and she’s letting loose.
The album is also unrestricted to a single genre. It can be classified as pop thanks to the infectious melodies she weaves together from song to song. Like her debut though, there’s a heavy R&B influence. Below that R&B influence are elements of hip hop, rock, and latin music all of which bring welcomed diversity to the album’s sonic profile. It’s also an album full of big statements. Christina is dirrty. She can’t be held down. She’s beautiful, no matter what you say. She’s underappreciated. She needs to walk away. She’s leaving today. She’s okay. She needs to trust the voice within.
Stripped’s introduction (and the later arriving part II) hone in on the gossip that surrounded the starlet, with clips that highlight everything from the men to the embellished Britney rivalry. “We’re gonna let Christina tell her side of the story,” crackles through as those sound-bites dissipate. She unravels a list of half-apologies between the two tracks: “Sorry you can’t define me, sorry that I speak my mind,” she declares in part 1. On part II she’s more blunt, declaring, “Sorry I’m not a virgin, sorry I’m not a slut,” carefully distinguishing herself from the virginal image being put forth on behalf of Britney Spears, while attempting to dismantle the idea that she can exist between the two extremes. “This is me… stripped,” she declares as the introduction slides into the album’s first full-length track.
One of the most important players that helped craft Stripped is hip hop icon Scott Storch. Producing and co-writing seven of Stripped’s twenty tracks, Storch made the largest contribution outside of Christina herself. It’s his adept ear for hip hop and R&B that fuels most of the album’s first half. His experience as a keyboardist for The Roots and mentee of Dr. Dre helped him develop a sound that became absolutely essential to the landscape of pop, R&B, and rap in the 2000’s. Stripped was also his first major success as a leading producer.
The album’s first full length song is the Storch-produced feminist anthem “Can’t Hold Us Down.” Aguilera runs through a list of inbalances between the treatment of men and women when it comes to authority, sex, and more, while vowing not to be suppressed. To further herpoint, Christina’s “Lady Marmalade” cohort Lil’ Kim cruises through and ponders things on her own. It’s a fitting reconnection. After all, this is the woman who just two years earlier brashly declared “if I was a dude I’d tell y’all to suck my dick.” It’s one of Kim’s many other moments of unapologetic sex-positive music that forever turned hip hop on its head. She pulls no punches, questioning why a man can have three girls and be considered “the man,” but when a woman does the same, “she’s a whore.”
Fun little aside: the original version of “Can’t Hold Us Down” featured Eve, not Lil’ Kim. No one knows what happened there, but a “Christina Aguilera” ad lib from Eve sits largely unrecognized at the end of Lil’ Kim’s verse on The Sharp Boys’ vocal mix of the song. I spoke with George of The Sharp Boys to see what they might know about the situation. He remembers receiving a call the day they finished their remix. They were notified that they would have to remove Eve’s verse because “Lil’ Kim was recording the new vocals that HAD to be used.” Though they couldn’t remember (and may not have been privy) to the specifics, “I think there was some sort of fall out after the original recording,” George told me. The mystery continues.
On the rock banger “Fighter,” she dismisses victimhood in the face of “this man I thought I knew… (who) turned out to be unjust, so cold.” Instead she draws on being used to emerge with an empowered statement of defiance. “Made me learn a little bit faster, made my skin a little bit thicker… thanks for making me a fighter,” she declares on the anthemic chorus. It’s a big, arena rock record that allows Christina to display her versatile instrument in a new arena. It also showcases Storch’s capacity for flourishing in genres outside of hip hop and R&B. Dave Navarro provides the lead guitar for some extra rock edge.
What makes Stripped such a strong record is the multifaceted nature of the material. Aguilera comes out looking like a helluva songwriter. She captures emotions ranging from frustration and infatuation to heartbreak and resilience. In most cases she’s just one of two or three writers on the songs, indicating that she’s not just a name added to the credits.
She painstakingly details the inner tug-of-war trying to detach from a poisonous significant other on “Walk Away.” She describes them like a drug, suffocating and haunting her, like a nightmare she can’t wake up from. The music is top tier; it’s a torch song with fluttering piano notes layered alongside strings and a hi hat-heavy drum part. Her vocal performance on “Walk Away” is dizzying. The runs she executes embody the torture and conflict she’s conveying with expect precision. She does some fantastic vocal work across Stripped, but her work here is some of the album’s best. It also foreshadows the vintage R&B material she’d dig into further on her next album.
One of the most exciting collaborations on Stripped was Alicia Keys, who was riding high after exploding on the scene in 2001. Though she almost gave Christina what would become one of her signature records, “If I Ain’t Got You,” she was advised against that move and instead composed a new record. “Impossible,” is dripping with Aretha Franklin. After a glittery introduction, the record simmers like the Muscle Shoals backbone of “I Never Loved A Man,” while knocking off “Ain’t No Way,” both musically and lyrically. Phrases like “give you all you need” and “how can I” are applied in similar fashion on across the two songs, which both detail an exasperation with an inexpressive significant other. Built on the foundation of such classics, with two forces like Christina and Alicia bringing it into 2002, it’s a stellar collaboration.
There’s feistiness and defiance on the funky “Underappreciated.” It also possesses flairs of Aretha at her feistiest (down to the ooo’s during the chorus), not to mention that “I feel underappreciated” is just a roundabout way of saying she wants some respect. Given a contemporary edge with a hip hop-minded drum track and funky keyboards from Storch, it even nods towards some of the funkiest sounds that had recently been emerging from the neo-soul movement.
Halfway through the album, the tone flips and the R&B and hip hop influence is largely superseded by rock and edgier sounds. Enter Linda Perry. The former 4-Non Blondes member was introduced to a new generation in 2001 thanks to her work with P!nk on Missundaztood. That caused Christina to take notice, and recruited Perry to help her access a new side of herself.
The first Perry contribution sequenced on Stripped is the massive second single, “Beautiful.” The heartfelt, resilient record about finding the beauty in yourself “no matter what they do, no matter what they say,” struck a chord. It rocketed to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped Billboard’s Dance, Adult Contemporary, and Top 40 charts. It also topped charts in ten countries across three continents. The accompanying video was gritty and full of representation, most notably of the LGBTQ+ community. It ultimately earned Aguilera recognition by GLAAD and remains one of her signature songs.
Though “Beautiful” was written solely by Perry, her other contributions are co-writes with the singer and stoke Christina’s introspection. The Mexican-flared “Make Over,” highlights the singer’s angsty side finds Christina “ready to fight… (wanting) to live simple and free,” while “feeling confined.” On their mid-tempo “Cruz,” Christina is on the other side, feeling the freedom and liberation in the face of shedding resistance and restriction.
Perry and Christina dive deep on “I’m Okay,” the album’s most personal track. It achingly details the abuse at the hands of her father and the effects of trauma she continues to feel. She pulls back at first, delivering the early verses in a delicate and fragile voice that magnifies the vulnerability of raw lyrics like “hurt me to see the pain across my mother’s face, every time my father’s fist would put her in her place.” As the song progresses, she finds her strength, belting “It’s not so easy to forget, all the marks you left along her left,” during the bridge, into an empowered final chorus.
The influence Perry had on Stripped extends beyond the four tracks she contributed to the album. Another single, “The Voice Within,” has a “Beautiful”-esque quality to it. It’s a big ballad that again showcases her vocal immensity. Where “Beautiful” is a pillar of confidence that comes both externally and internally, “The Voice Within” pushes for that same self-love by finding reassurance from within.
Then there’s the album’s lead single. “Dirrty.” Based on Redman’s 2001 cut “Let’s Get Dirty (I Can’t Get In Da Club)” it was an explosive statement to introduce Stripped to the world. Hard percussion and synth bass lines courtesy of producer Rockwilder gave Christina a gritty foundation to make it crystal clear that singing about genies on the beach was a thing of the past. Redman joined the party to lend his stamp of approval to the experience.
“Dirrty” also highlights the importance of the music videos for Stripped. With the release of “Dirrty,” Christina caused an uproar. Here was the sweet “Genie In A Bottle” girl from the beach, descending to an underground boxing ring donning leather chaps, a barely-there bikini, and a nose ring all while surrounded by dirt and grime. There’s mud-wrestling and a shower scene. It’s chaotic, it’s messy, and most importantly, it successfully got her point across.
The aforementioned “Beautiful” video made a splash in its own way, and Christina even remade the video in 2022 as a commentary on the world and the impact social media has on children. Its message continues to resonate even with a new set of visuals to accompany it.
She’s an insect personified going through a tense metamorphosis on “Fighter.” There’s no pretty butterfly here a la Mariah. Instead, Christina comes out looking more like an ant that bursts through to become a glowing moth. It’s more gritty and defiant, and also displays Aguilera going dark, literally. She debuted black hair that would last through the touring piece of the album cycle.
Stripped closes on with one last Aretha nod, on the ah-oo background vocals of “Keep On Singin’ My Song.” It’s also one last Scott Storch production to close out the record after cohesive, yet diverse production in the second half. He even recruits The Roots’ inimitable drummer Amhir ‘Questlove’ Thompson to contribute percussion to the track. It’s a sort of resilient to-be-continued after a record of introspection and vulnerability. It perfectly punctuates the record. “They can do what they wanna, say what they wanna, but I’m gonna keep on singin’ my song,” she declares, completing her evolution through empowerment.
Stream the 20th Anniversary edition of Christina Aguilera’s Stripped: