Despite emerging as one of music’s most chameleonic artists, Christina Aguilera makes music that always sounds like her. In fact, the only time she’s unrecognizable happens in A Great Big World’s “Say Something”, which you definitely forgot about until right this second. But whether embodying a pop star, an Andrews Sister, or an R&B artist, Xtina consistently shines through, a showy and throaty voice familiar to anyone with even a minor knowledge of music over the past 20 years. Now in the latter half of the 2010s with two decades of fame under her belt, Aguilera wants to break free of expectations. Like the Unapologetic’s and Purpose’s that came before, Liberation is an album focused on an artist attempting to break free not just of their musical molds but also the public’s own perceptions of what type of artist they should be. In fact, a plausible reason for Liberation’s 2018 release could very well stem from pop culture’s obsession with tracking it. It makes you wonder if the production ended up a little rushed by the end, seeing as half of Liberation soars and the other half comes up short in terms of creativity and general musicality.
The first half of the album drags a little bit, particularly because three of the first six songs happen to be intros or interludes. The other half are empowered but unwieldy anthems about religion (“Maria”), creative restriction (“Sick of Sittin’”), and feminism (“Fall in Line”). Though well-intentioned, “Sick of Sittin’” sounds a bit hypocritical from Aguilera who spent the past few years sitting in a seat on the Voice. “Fall in Line” ends up being a competition between Aguilera and new age diva Demi Lovato over who can out-riff the other. When she goes big, Aguilera does it best when she keeps it moving rather than marching (see “Makes Me Wanna Pray”, “Your Body”, and “Dirrty”).
Once you hit “Right Moves” however, does Liberation start shedding its weight, forgoing the sluggish march of the previous tracks for a little more groove. Up against a “Hotline Bling” production, Aguilera rides the beat assertively without being ostentatious, a quality that allows the featured Shenseea to run away with eight bars. When Aguilera not only tones down the production but also the vocal theatrics, she and her collaborators form a better connection.
This idea continues on with the Goldlink-assisted “Like I Do”, whose groovy Anderson Paak accompaniment perfectly suits the rapper’s rapid flow and Aguilera’s confidence. “Accelerate”, featuring Ty Dolla Sign and 2 Chainz, again shows how sharing the playing field with featured acts is the way to go. Aguilera comes in controlled and steady on the chorus, followed by Dolla Sign’s raspy, breathy timbre. By not obliterating her collaborators a la “Lady Marmalade”, Aguilera places her partners on a more even playing field, allowing their talents to showcase hers instead of them being drowned out by it. Her voice may sound lighter on “Pipe Down”, but it sounds no less refined or lovely as it does when she’s screlting.
That said, Liberation does give listeners what they expect from Aguilera, though to varying degrees of success. “Deserve” is simply boring, and it’s hard to tell whether she’s genuinely anguished or just struggling to sang out some notes. The following track, the piano and choir-assisted “Twice”, sounds better, remains unmemorable. However, the two closers, “Masochist” and “Unless It’s With You”, bring about some late redemption to the record. Fearlessly romantic, “Unless It’s With You” validates Aguilera’s vocal prowess, growing from timid admission to an impassioned declaration of devotion. The small details such as the way Aguilera softly rolls over “Fairytales and a wedding dress” are frankly lovely enough to make you fall for Liberation pitfalls and all. It has hints of Quadron’s Avalanche and leads one to believe Aguilera could put together something special with a producer like Robin Hannibal.
In the end, though Liberation never reaches the heights fans likely wanted from Xtina, it serves as a pleasant refresher for a voice that has earned its place in the annals of pop history. That said, it’s a bit sad to feel like her finest moments are, at least for now, also in her past. C PLUS