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Christina Aguilera, ‘Stripped’ (RCA)

For a while, it looked like a Celebrity Deathmatch for the ages: Christina Aguilera (half-Latina, half-suburban Pittsburgh, armed with Mariah-grade pipes and plenty of ‘tude) versus Britney Spears (the quasi-innocent Louisiana Lolita whose breakout single”…Baby One More Time” beat Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” to market by about eight months). But while Britney torched her candle at both ends–two follow-up albums, a movie, a tony Manhattan restaurant–Christina lay relatively low, or as low as one can lie while wearing fishnets and a pink frizz-‘fro wig. She flipped her hits en español on 2000’s Mi Reflejo, joined Missy Elliott’s freak chorus on a hit remake of “Lady Marmalade,” and plotted her next move.

As an artistic statement, Aguilera’s second proper album, Stripped, is all over the place–it’s a move toward hip-hop, it’s a move toward rock, it’s ghetto, it’s Disney. But above all, it’s a declaration of independence, and it proves that if Aguilera ever really squared off with her fellow ex-Mouseketeer, she’d kick Britney’s ass. Just look at the way she snaps back at the men in her life. Over the midtempo groove of “Can’t Hold Us Down,” a sisters-doin’-it-for-themselves duet with Lil’ Kim, Aguilera suggests that Eminem “Must talk so big / To make up for smaller things.” Then on “I’m OK,” she calls out her dad as a wife beater– “Bruises fade, father,” she scolds, “but the pain remains the same.” Her role model here, of course, is Pink, who got some grown-up props by airing similar family trauma on last year’sMissundaztood. Linda Perry, who helped orchestrate Pink’s jagged-little-pill rebrand, produces several tracks here, including the blazing “Make Over,” where Christina comes out screaming “bullshit” at some unfaithful dude for “all the years you violated me.”

These surprisingly personal confessions, of course, are offset with some less surprising Divas Live schmaltz, like the swoony Celine-for-teens ballad “A Voice Within.” But for the most part, Stripped is Aguilera telling us what a girl pop starreally wants: to be free with her body, her art, and her heart. And whenever the content veers close to affirmational talk-show territory, Aguilera drops a sex bomb like the Redman duet “Dirrty” or the sweaty “Get Mine Get Yours,” where she commands a partner to “work me like a 9-to-5.” Ladies and gentlemen, the genie has left the bottle.