If you’ve been searching for Christina Aguilera, she’s ready to be found. Again. If you want to find her on her latest album, Liberation, you’ll have to read between the lines (and get through an instrumental, a Rogers & Hammerstein homage, some spoken tracks, and some samples from Kanye West’s library) to get at the real Christina Aguilera. Because her story is less in the lyrics and more in the crafting of the tale on this album as its executive producer — something she’s been perfecting since 2002’s Stripped.
The narrative is, as described, liberation. To those ends, Aguilera addresses gender inequality, both in terms of the commodification of women as objects to workplace marginalization for women; gender norms, from carnal desire to beauty standards for women; and relationships, from bad ones to escape to good ones that set you free. She makes a lot of universal tropes feel personal thanks to her trademark emotive delivery, especially in the feel-good hip hop influenced “Sick of Sittin’” and the pop empowerment-themed “Like I Do.” The dirrty side of her is present and accounted for on the Kanye West-produced “Accelerate,” and on “Pipe,” which is about exactly what you think it is.
Aguilera turns in a remarkably personal performance on the ballad “Deserve,” a song so harrowing it feels like she stepped right out of a therapy session and into the vocal booth. But, she wasn’t a writer on the track at all, it’s by Julia Michaels and Uzoechi Emenike. That’s not a diss: She’s done such a good job of curating, as well as co-writing, a collection of songs here that feel of the same stripe of soul-bearing moments we haven’t seen since Stripped. On Liberation, Aguilera finally embraces that she is at her most powerful when she is at her most raw; in fact, she feels most in control when she’s truly baring her soul, rather than kowtowing to generic, corporate musical trends.
There are very few weaknesses on Liberation. The segue from the heaviness of “Fall In Line,” her excellent duet with Demi Lovato, into “Right Moves” is tough, leaving the latter, a jaunty, summery track with island music roots feeling extra frivolous. But any follow-up“ Fall In Line” was going to have a hard road to hoe anyway. Things also feel a bit excessive on the tail end. Any of the final three songs could have been cut to make the album more concise and the message a bit clearer. It’s certainly understandable to want to end on an upbeat note with classic pop track “Unless It’s With You” after an album packed with such intense songs, but “Masochist” and “Pipe” don’t quite make sense back to back.
West makes another appearance to lend his production ear on the album’s first track, an take off on the Sound of Music's “Maria,” while Anderson .Paak shows up on a few tracks. The rest of the album’s producers are handpicked by Aguilera to fit into the slots and sounds she wants. That may be the album’s biggest power move. Aguilera is also co-credited with A&R (picking the songs) on the album, a job usually reserved for some dude at the record label who shows up in the studio to say, “Yeah, I don’t hear a hit.” Taking that role on for herself? Liberation.