Album Review: Christina Aguilera’s ‘Liberation’

Mike Nied | June 15, 2018 12:44 pm
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Rise up, Fighters! Christina Aguilera’s highly-anticipated Liberation arrives today (June 15). With a discography jam-packed with hits, the 37-year-old’s early releases rank as some of the most iconic of the last 20 years. However, her two most recent albums haven’t resonated to the same extent. 2010’s electro-kissed Bionic was ahead of its time but wildly uneven, while Lotus offered some fun pop anthems (including the Max Martin-produced “Your Body”) but felt overly safe.

In comparison, Liberation is Legend X’s most adventurous project since Stripped. Effortlessly hopping genres from hip-hop and R&B to rock and reggae, it is an expansive release that redefines her sound. The big-lunged diva hinted as a sonic switch-up when she unveiled her club-ready lead single, “Accelerate.” A collaboration with Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz, this ranks as her most urban single in decades. “Accelerate, c’mon babe. Pick up your speed. Stamina, fill me up. That’s what I need,” she commands. While quirky and even jarring at times, the chorus has serious staying power. Listen once, and you are all but guaranteed to be humming along to the beat three hours later.

“Twice” put the singer back in a comfortable zone as she showed off her soaring vocals on a gorgeous ballad. Boasting some of the best writing on the LP, it highlights her maturity as she contemplates the past. “Well sometimes I wonder what is the meaning of my life? I found the price of love and lost my mind,” she soulfully laments on the chorus. Progressively growing in power, it balances moments of pure emotion with restraint and pays tribute to her absolute control.

The Demi Lovato-assisted “Fall In Line” seemed like a sure-fire opportunity to reclaim a spot on the Hot 100. Female empowerment is a recurring theme throughout Christina’s career, and she found a worthy partner in her Tell Me You Love Me collaborator. However, the end result is not quite as iconic as “Can’t Hold Us Down,” for example. Even though they clearly have a strong chemistry, the production does them no favors. They performed the single at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards and unveiled an accompanying video, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to propel the track to the level of success originally expected.

“Like I Do,” however, is a self-assured bop. “Boy, you already know my story. You were raised in all my glory,” Xtina proclaims over a melodic production. Few artists have the ability to make such impressive claims, but her nearly 20-year-long legacy supports them. This is evidenced by GoldLink’s guest verse, which is lush with references to some of her biggest hits.

The rest of Liberation is as eclectic as the tracks that already arrived. Linking up with a star-studded crew of producers, writers and collaborators, Christina pushed herself in a variety of sonic directions on one of her most ambitious releases in years. Comprised of an impressive 15 tracks, it offers nearly an hour of listening. Much of it is excellent, but there are a few forgettable moments.

Let’s start with the highlights. Kanye West’s second contribution to the album (he also co-produced “Accelerate”) is on “Maria.” Opening with an orchestral instrumental, it descends into the depths of the clubs and provides an ever-shifting production as the siren searches for an earlier version of herself. “Don’t run away, don’t run away no,” she pleads on the cinematic outro. The first true song on the tracklist, this sets the thematic tone. Like the title suggests, Liberation is about freedom. But it is also about self-reflection.

The queen of all things “Dirrty” lets her freak flag fly on the sexy, reggae cut “Right Moves.” Over a breezy production, she breathily lists all the places she would like to be fucked. “On a glass table, love me something unstable,” she coos on the opening lines. “On a wooden staircase, love me until I can’t think straight,” she lustily adds. The verses become progressively more explicit, and she delivers clever double entendres with irresistible sensuality. Things never really build to a climax — instead, it just keeps pounding forward. To quote the diva herself, the end result will leave you with chills running up your spine.

Julia Michaels’ signature is all over emo banger “Deserve.” Written in collaboration with MNEK, it is an electro-ballad in the style of “Issues.” The chorus shines here, and it can be sung more passionately with every rendition. “Sometimes I don’t think I deserve you. So I say some fucked up shit just to just to hurt you,” Christina earnestly belts. “But you know I do it all cause I love you. So baby tell me I’m the one that deserves you.” It is impossible to avoid singing along.

Another highlight is Liberation’s closer, “Unless It’s With You,” which is bound to become a wedding song. On it, the hitmaker sings about a partner who restored her faith in love. “Fairy tales are fake happiness. But here we are, and I must confess. Yeah I’m in over my head feeling confused. Cause I don’t want to get married unless it’s with you,” she sings over atmospheric production from Ricky Reed. Her voice is surprisingly restrained, but grows progressively stronger. It could win her a Grammy.

Other songs are less successful, however. Inspired by Janis Joplin, “Sick Of Sittin'” is another defiant anthem in the style of “Fighter” or Lotus track “Army Of Me.” Boasting hooks that are bound to linger, the anthem is home to some of the heaviest belting. Comfortable in her lower register, the “Genie In A Bottle” singer is effortlessly badass. The only complaint is that the track never really manages to grow. It opens with a large statement and never eclipses the introduction.

“Pipe” is another raunchy bop. On it, Legend X sends out a car to pick up a lover for a night of sexercising. “I get loud when you put the pipe down,” she overtly chants on the opening line. Things get more passionate as she moves further into the track. “All that shit that you said you going to be doing to me last week, oh I wanna see some receipts.” Although a clear bedroom banger, it lacks some of the fun of the “Right Moves” or the absolutely bombastic “WooHoo.” Perhaps it could have been salvaged by a Nicki Minaj feature?

Meanwhile, “Masochist” finds Christina picking up the pieces after a bad breakup. However, much like on her gorgeous Stripped ballad, “Walk Away,” she is unable to leave her lover in the past. “Sometimes I get lonely. I get needy. I call you. And I know that it’s crazy, that it’s stupid. But it’s the truth,” she laments over candied synths. Here is another example of a cut that never seems to meet its full potential. Even with a striking bridge, it will leave you wanting more. More disappointing are the interludes, which do nothing to bridge the gap between dissonant sounds.

After such a long absence from music, Liberation is a welcome return. And in the most meaningful way it is a win. Although the album has failed to spawn a breakout hit, it is easily her most ambitious in recent memory and puts her artistry at the fore. Additionally, while it hops genres, it remains true to her aesthetic. From the larger-than-life vocals to the soulful balladry, defiant anthems and raunchy bangers, this is undeniably a Christina Aguilera album.

Score: 4/5

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