It’s been nearly six years since Christina Aguilera released an album. The last time she did, Barack Obama was still president, This Is Us hadn’t shattered hearts everywhere and the world had yet to hear the name Cardi B. During her extended hiatus, Aguilera, now 37, came and went as a coach on The Voice, got engaged to Matthew Rutler and welcomed their daughter, Summer Rain. She continued to hit the studio through it all, slowly creating what would ultimately become her new genre-bending record.
Liberation (out Friday, June 15) opens with a predominantly instrumental song named after the album and composed by Nicholas Britell, who previously crafted the Oscar-nominated score for the 2016 film Moonlight. Bizarrely, the introductory tune crescendos into yet another interlude of sorts, this time a mere 25-second snippet of “Maria” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical The Sound of Music. (Aguilera has long cited the 1965 movie adaptation starring Julie Andrews as one of her favorites.)
It isn’t until the third song, also titled “Maria,” that the pop star actually takes center stage. Her unmistakable powerhouse vocals kick in over a trap beat blended with orchestral strings. The track, which is one of two that Kanye West coproduced on the LP, interpolates a sample of a little-known Jackson 5 cut.
Next, Aguilera breaks through the glass ceiling on the powerful and soulful “Sick of Sittin’,” which showcases her signature growl and attitude early on. “I can’t move with these chains on me,” she belts, later declaring, “They wanna take my shine / They wanna take my time / But I’mma take what’s mine / Don’t play with me.”
On the spoken-word interlude “Dreamers,” a number of young girls vow to make their voices heard and share their biggest aspirations. Summer, 3, is one of the featured children. (Aguilera also shares son Max, 10, with ex-husband Jordan Bratman.) The anthemic “Fall in Line” follows suit and features another former child star, Demi Lovato. The duet continues the theme of female empowerment with #MeToo-era lyrics such as, “I got a mind to show my strength / And I got a right to speak my mind.”
Liberation takes a somewhat unexpected turn with the reggaeton-influenced “Right Moves,” which features standout verses from Jamaican artists Keida and Shenseea. It could easily pass as a B-side from Rihanna’s Anti, in the same way that the sultry “Pipe” feels like a leftover from one of Tinashe’s early R&B mixtapes. “Deserve,” cowritten by hitmaker Julia Michaels and rising singer-producer MNEK, finds Aguilera uttering “some f–ked up s–t just to hurt” a lover over a blipping electronic rhythm.
The 15-track disc has plenty of high points, but there are a few duds too. The West-produced lead single, “Accelerate,” is a peculiar choice for a pop comeback and one of the worst in Aguilera’s entire catalog. It sounds like an unfinished demo and, frankly, is unlistenable. “Like I Do” and the a cappella interlude “I Don’t Need It Anymore” are also forgettable and don’t contribute much to the project as a whole. As the old adage goes, sometimes less is more.
That said, the shining moments on Liberation are the ballads, many of which fall on the second half of the tracklist. The contemplative and stripped-down nature of “Twice” makes it the singer’s best since 2006’s “Hurt,” while the dreamy and emotional “Masochist” finds her tackling a toxic relationship like never before. “Loving you is so bad for me / But I just can’t walk away,” she coos during the chorus on the latter.
The album ends on a high note with the piano-driven “Unless It’s With You,” a candid love letter to Aguilera’s fiancé. She details how she wasn’t looking for love again after the demise of her marriage to Bratman, but those feelings changed when she met Rutler. As the foundation builds, she concedes, “I don’t wanna get married / Unless it’s with you.”
The gospel-driven closer is the best track on Liberation and only further proves that Aguilera has reclaimed her status as an irrepressible force in the music industry.
3 stars (out of 4)