Album Review: Christina Aguilera’s Liberation

christina aguilera liberation

Christina Aguilera is undisputedly one of the greatest voices of her generation. Her vocal ability is unquestionable. However, she’s a voice without a sound. She never quite found a signature sound to define her over the course of her seven albums. As a result, her catalog is a mish-mosh of sometimes-defiant experiments. Some have worked better (Stripped, Back To Basics) than others (Bionic, Lotus). Her new album, Liberation, falls in line with that trend of experimentation. Unfortunately it’s not for the better.

It’s not a good sign when the album’s first actual song starts at track 3 of 15. Christina has always insisted on an album introduction, which can work if executed correctly (like on Stripped). But at this point, what needed to be said that the music couldn’t? “Remember”, apparently. That’s the only word that’s spoken after a wasted 1:38 of instrumental during track one, “Liberation”. It’s immediately followed by track two, a timid, 0:25 second acapella of “Maria” from The Sound of Music. Why? That’s just one of many questions surrounding Liberation, including: Why title it Liberation? Why, after 6 years, were these the songs that made the cut? And, what was the objective? After many listens, the answers are still unclear.

Immediately following the two strange interludes, the album actually starts. Liberation’s true opening track is Kanye West’s first contribution, “Maria” (a reference to Aguilera’s middle name). Unfortunately, Kanye’s contributions to Liberation are about as tragic as he is these days. “Maria” is a hodgepodge of the keys from Aerosmith’s “Dream On” or No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”, a harder “Drunk In Love” beat, and strings for good (bad?) measure. His other production, buzz single “Accelerate”, is catchy but worse than “Maria”, stifled further by Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz. It feels as misguided as some of the worst moments on 2010’s Bionic. Except here, the missteps don’t even fit the album sonically.

Anderson .Paak’s disjointed post-soul/funk ”Sick Of Sittin” has his fingerprints all over the sound. Topically it would have made a great album opener. Plus, the clear shade towards her stint on The Voice is entertaining. Yet, the song pales in comparison to Paak’s stellar work on Dr. Dre’s Compton and his own Malibu. Equally, his other contribution “Like I Do” doesn’t properly encapsulate his nor Christina’s massive talent. Nor does the feature from Goldlink. It’d be much more palatable to hear Paak using his rough voice to blend with Christina’s over this beat.

Otherwise, songs like the reggae-flavored “Right Moves”, contemporary R&B of “Pipe”, and stuttering drops of “Deserve” aren’t inherently bad. They just feel like filler that’s not worth bragging about on an album with 11 songs.

Elsewhere there’s a very cute interlude “Dreamers” that precedes the middle-of-the-road Demi Lovato duet, “Fall In Line”. Little girls share their dreams and aspirations. The one-two punch is very timely based on the (much needed) changing social climate around women’s rights and equality. Yet, “Fall In Line” fails to truly ignite, despite two powerhouse vocalists and a well-placed key change. It’s a decent song and catchy, but musically it feels out of touch, even with Jon Bellion’s masterful ear handling production.

What Could Have Been

For all that’s bad, there are a few glimpses at what could have been. Liberation’s best songs are also its simplest. The ballad “Twice” instantly harkens back to the Stripped sound. The acapella introduction and piano-driven arrangement put Christina’s voice right where it should be: front and center. It’s searing, soulful, and mesmerizing. The similar “Unless It’s With You”, Liberation’s closer, is in a similar vein. Christina sings directly to her fiance, pledging her commitment. It’s raw, honest, authentic and understated.

Liberation’s true highlight though, is “Masochist”. It’s another ballad track that allows Christina to vocally soar. Propelled by 80’s synths and subtle percussion, the song is satisfying with every note, chord, and progression. Simply, it sticks, with a hook that is searing ear candy. This is the sonic direction that Aguilera should have focused on for the entire album.

It’s curious that after 6 years, Liberation is the album Christina Aguilera felt would propel her back to prominence. With a puzzling title, lack of direction, and over-the-top production, it notches her third miss in a row. The miss is magnified more by the fleeting moments of brilliance that hint at what Liberation could have been. Maybe it’s time to do a stripped back album, just  the basics: Xtina and piano.

Listen to Christina Aguilera’s Liberation:

1 Comment

  1. Matthew

    June 16, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    This is a good review, those I do disagree with some of the opinions, namely I think “Accelerate” and “Like I Do” are good songs mainly because she isn’t forcing her voice out of its natural range. And that last point is part of a larger reason why Christina Aguilera has not found who she is. She is a bi-ethnic white woman, who culturally appropriates contemporary (as opposed to traditional) blackness, while maintaining her aesthetic whiteness (traditional and contemporary), and rails against pop music capitalism (essentially marketed white patriarchy through music) while wanting to be seen as a contemporary pop act and maintain the success associated with pop music capitalism. These two paradoxes are why she can’t find her voice. Ironically, her best albums are the first three, but they are all a different form of black appropriation and represent Christina’s clearly insatiable desire to be respected and seen as a white woman with soul and streets aka blackness, traditional and contemporary respectively (I won’t get into the absolute cognitive dissonance this entails, and her lack of understanding, with the fraught history of white-American women, and black/African American men and women).

    First her eponymous debut album: part of the teen pop movement (it was indeed a designed movement) of the late ’90s, which was a reaction to Mariah Carey (the then-Goddess of music, now the Historic, Living Goddess of music) fully embracing hip-hop and blackness, and simultaneously embracing and owning her sexual expression (which in a lot of ways explicit sexuality is constructed in blackness). Max Martin, who is on record discussing this, wanted to create a sound that fused soul and rhythm & blues (black music), with European dance (“white” music, white in quotations because all contemporary music comes from black America) to mass market to white audiences in America and Europe (now disaffected because they feel they were fooled by supporting Mariah Carey before). And that’s what he did. As Mariah Carey was in a way a pariah of white, Christian America after her completed evolution in 1997, this opened up the music market to a now massive audience of white America, particularly young/tween white America that needed *safe* female artists that could “sing” to fill that void. Enter all the young blonde-haired, some blue-eyed, not sexualized, but still youthful and contemporary white female singers/artists/dancers that could fill that void. You could argue the same thing for Janet Jackson, and Boys II Men. Christina Aguilera sought to escape this racist (which is different and separate from bigotry), sexist (which is different and separate from misogyny) capitalist movement, but because she didn’t fully comprehend it, and still doesn’t, so she did what she could. Which led her to Stripped. And I’ll try to keep the rest of this short.

    Stripped by-and-large is explicit blackness, while her eponymous debut is implicit blackness (and actually that is the career/artistic model that Mariah Carey created unintentionally). At one point she literally donned blackface (“Can’t Hold Us Down” video in particular, hell all of the videos, the album cover she’s a dark gray in black and white…), began featuring rappers on her music (and unlike Mariah Carey did not have a genuine appreciation and understanding of rap and hip hop) and expressed explicit sexuality (except hers was more raunch and Dita Von Teese, while Mariah Carey’s has always been solely Marilyn Monroe). Her album sold half of her previous album (in some part because it was not as good), and the first single “Dirrty” didn’t even crack top 40. White, Christian America largely rejected it (sexualized and black), and black-/African American, Christian America didn’t really care (I will say I loved and love “Dirrty”, and I am African American). Some songs on the album were authentic and spoke to her true artistry: “Fighter”, a rock song with soul/rhythm and blues infusions that allow her to be white and express her authentic appreciation of black culture pre-1980, pre-hip-hop; “The Voice Within”, a piano ballad that seeks to find inner strength which she can clearly relate given her upbringing; and “Beautiful”, a piano and classical contemporary ballad that achieves the same effect. I could go on and on and on, but you get the point.

    If Christina Aguilera became a white female artist that can truly sing who fought for the deconstruction of white supremacy, patriarchy (she’s arguably not a feminist) and capitalism from her white female perspective through music, she would have found her voice. But trying to moderate all of these competing forces within and outside of her, has produced the artistic confusion we see today. But hey, at least she is an artist, or at least strives to be an artist, and not just a singer, or vocal performer.

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