Christina Aguilera was touted as the next Mariah Carey when she first debuted her impressive vocal talent on her self-titled debut album in 1999. Quickly setting herself apart from Britney Spears, her former Mickey Mouse Club star, Aguilera forged a very different path. On the heels of her debut she released Spanish-language record Mi Reflejo in 2000 and festive collection My Kind of Christmas that same year. In 2002 she started to reinvent herself with Stripped, arguably her best album to date, and in 2006 she went retro for the ambitious 2-disc set Back to Basics. After that point it’s all been a bit downhill with 2010’s poorly received Bionic and 2012’s commercial bomb Lotus.
Over the past 6 years Aguilera has been a coach on The Voice US on and off, something she has recently expressed no desire to do again, and she’s dipped into acting too. Save for a guest appearance on A Great Big World’s smash Say Something and a track on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack, Aguilera has largely been absent from music. The past four years she’s been working on a new album and the end result of that is Liberation. The project’s first track Accelerate featuring Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz is produced by Kanye West but it’s not exactly set the charts alight.
The follow-up is Fall in Line, a duet with Demi Lovato, about empowering women and standing up for yourself. Thus far the song has made a minimal impact on the chart but it has at least created some buzz about Liberation. The theme for that song is one that runs intermittently through Liberation, which sees Aguilera acting as her own A&R and working with a host of producers and writers.
Liberation gets off to a slow start, opening with an instrumental from Moonlight composer Nicholas Britell. That’s followed by a 25 second track titled Searching for Maria where Aguilera sings How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria from The Sound of Music. The album properly begins then with Maria (Aguilera’s middle name), the first full song on the record produced by Kanye West. Featuring a sample of Michael Jackson’s Maria (You Were the Only One), the song sees Aguilera trying to find herself again and reflecting on the ups and downs of her career. It’s dramatic but there’s not really a tune or melody there.
Next up is the funky Sick of Sittin’, a song that appears to be a dig at her role on The Voice US. The track is recorded as if it’s a live performance and for me it shows the worst side of Aguilera’s voice. Powerful it may be but she pushes it past the point of being pleasant with a raspy sound that makes you think surely she’s damaging her vocal chords by singing so often in this way.
By this point of the album I was feeling pretty glum about the prospects of it turning things around but it does from Fall in Line onwards. Prior to that track Dreamers continues the female empowerment theme with a number of young girls sharing their wants and dreams. It sets the scene for Fall in Line, a track that is as much a vocal battle between Aguilera and Lovato as it is a call to arms for women. The album then makes an odd move into a sexy Rihanna-lite track called Right Moves featuring Keida and Shenseea but oddly it kind of works. The message couldn’t be any more frivolous as Aguilera begs her man to have sex with her anywhere and everywhere.
Not everything on Liberation works but Aguilera certainly pushes herself out of her comfort zone. Like I Do is a pleasant mid-tempo R&B number but it didn’t really need a tedious rap by GoldLink and it’s the first of a handful of songs that don’t benefit from have a rapper on them. Deserve, produced by MNEK, is a stark and bold moment where Aguilera makes admissions about behaving poorly in a relationship but interestingly she had no hand in writing it.
Elsewhere Twice showcases Aguilera’s voice in a better light with a more restrained vocal that uses her powerful belt to good effect. Backed by only a piano, Aguilera is at her finest on the track and I wish there’d been a little more of that. Pipe featuring XNDA sees Aguilera doing her best Janet Jackson with a saucy beat-driven rhythm and some really nice vocal moments and Masochist sounds a little like a Madonna track until Aguilera pushes her voice once again just that bit too far.
The best moment on the record is the last track, Unless It’s With You. The second piano ballad on the album, it’s the most emotionally honest moment on the record. Aguilera sings about being ready to marry again and it’s one of the more optimistic, forward-looking moments on the record. It’s also easily Aguilera’s best vocal on the entire record.
Liberation is an album that’s trying to do a lot, which causes it to lack cohesion. I have a feeling Aguilera was attempting Stripped Part II with this record and she almost hits those highs. Liberation is far better than the forgettable Lotus and it’s adventurous in the spirit of the under-rated Bionic. Repeat listens prove that the album is a grower but I do wish Aguilera would smoothen out that stretched and raspy belt she’s in the bad habit of over-using.
Track list: 1. Liberation 2. Searching for Maria 3. Maria 4. Sick of Sittin’ 5. Dreamers 6. Fall in Line (feat Demi Lovato) 7. Right Moves (feat Keida & Shenseea) 8. Like I Do (feat GoldLink) 9. Deserve 10. Twice 11. I Don’t Need it Anymore (interlude) 12. Accelerate (feat Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz) 13. Pipe (feat XNDA) 14. Masochist 15. Unless It’s With You Record label: RCA Release date: 15th June 2018