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Christina Aguilera – Liberation Review

June 16, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Christina Aguilera - LIberation
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Christina Aguilera – Liberation Review  

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 and Shenseea
8. Like I Do
9 Deserve
10. Twice
11. I Don’t Need It Anymore (Interlude)
12. Accelerate feat Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz
13. Pipe
14. Masochist
15. Unless It’s With You

Pop stars tethered to the major label hit machine are not supposed to take six-year breaks between LPs. They are expected to ruthlessly churn out albums on a short cycle, in an attempt to chase trends and game algorithms. Christina Aguilera slipped the industry shackles by becoming the long-term star of The Voice. As a small screen fixture she was no longer required to deliver hit records, but remained a tabloid target as her divorce and “weight issues” were salaciously scrutinised. What’s remarkable (and highly creditable) is that Christina only saw fit to release one album during her seven-year stint on one of America’s most watched shows.

This restraint lends Liberation an air of both authority and importance. This is the return of Christina Aguilera the artist: with an album she wanted to record and release. It arrives on a timetable of her own making and, from the title on down; it suggests that Aguilera really has something to get off her chest. Liberation has been positioned, from the word go, as the singer’s #MeToo moment, her introduction to “woke” pop, but that is both a gross oversimplification and wholly misleading. Liberation is more personal than a mere grope for cutting edge kudos on the one hand, but proves too unfocused and universal in its ambitions to be a truly political release on the other.

So the question remains: what kind of Liberation? Two unmistakably direct answers are provided by the album’s most interesting and best tracks respectively.

The former, “Sick Of Sittin’”, is a strident rejection of Aguilera’s role as a judge on The Voice. She does not need the big red chair anymore. Her inner artist is sick of shackles and wants to burst free. This declaration of independence sees Christina rasping and roaring atop a rolling rock arrangement that apes the kind of stadium sized beat Jay-Z employed on The Blueprint 3. There is some nifty squealing guitarwork and a thunderous percussion track, but the music fails to fill the space around Aguilera’s vocal, instead it feels like a perpetual set up for a rap verse that never comes. Nevertheless, “Sick Of Sittin’” stands as a tub-thumping escape from televised tedium, its excess of attitude overcomes any musical shortcomings

With the sole exception of Britney Spears, no woman is better positioned to detail the experience of coming of age inside the male driven record industry of late 90s. Christina was the epitome of the manufactured teen idol shaped under the intense glare of the male gaze. On “Fall In Line” (the aforementioned best track) Demi Lovato stands at Aguilera’s side as she offers a stark warning to a generation of young girls preparing to enter the workplace: do not go along to get along, don’t take shit, stand up for yourselves and your career. Instead of offering a sorrowful confessional detailing mistreatment, Aguilera exhibits agency in the extreme, promising to take control of her own career and her own artistry.

Her weapon of choice in this battle against aging and the status quo is her bulldozing vocal. On this lurching colossus of a track her voice only grows in stature, volume and stridency. Pray for her enemies, because they will be reduced to quivering, jabbering mess when faced with Aguilera and Lovato’s onslaught of perfectly pitched decibels. What really takes the track to the next level is the use of chopped and screwed male vocals: just as Christina hits her ferocious stride the mechanical voice of misogynistic hip hop drones: “March 2-3, Left 2-3, Shut Your Mouth, Stick Your Arse Out For Me”. It’s a masterstroke and the kind of unexpected detail that so rarely recurs on Liberation.

The embrace of hip hop production is something that excited Aguilera and rap beats are employed across the album, yielding decidedly mixed results. Kanye West produces two tracks. On “Maria”, Aguilera searches for direction atop a stuttering beat that blends a Michael Jackson sample with Aerosmith’s “Dream On”. Whether Christina’s soul vocals really suit these surrounds is unclear, but her performance is so rich in desperation that the narrative of a woman trying to reclaim her authenticity proves convincing. Kanye, unlike many of Liberation’s other producers, is careful to drop the beat in ways that highlight Aguilera’s skyscraper shuddering vocals. His other offering, “Accelerate”, is less interesting than “Maria”, but more well rounded. It is the most straightforward pop and club ready beat Kanye has produced since “All Of The Lights”. It’s the closest thing to a hit single on the record and it represents the rare moment when Christina feels like a real R&B vocalist.

The rest of the hip hop concessions prove frustrating, largely because they feel sadly insincere. Christina loves these beats, no one questions that, but on album where she explicitly reasserts her sense of self and artistic control, it is disappointing to hear her immediately indulging in a game of cross-genre dress up. “Like I Do” is a dated mess: an overwrought attempt at AlunaGeorge’s signature sonics, which falls on its face when attempting seduction. The clunky verse is passable enough, but the chorus is a hideous wet fish as Aguilera coos: “We can Marvin Gaye and get it on”. What’s worse is that, in the final verse, Christina actually hits her stride when whispering to her lover, only to drop the beat and bring back the abortive chorus.

“Right Moves” is a noble attempt at getting the hips moving, but Christina’s eroticism is undermined by a delivery drenched in campy musical theatre flourishes. Again, Christina feels like she’s pretending to be Rhianna or Tinashe, rather than expressing a sexuality that is truly her own. The point is rammed home by guest Shenseea, whose dance hall verse is a masterclass in authenticity as she grinds all-over the low end beat with a lurid grace.

Thankfully, Christina finds surer footing on Liberation’s ballads. The artificial emptiness of rap beats affords plenty of space for vocal exploration. “Deserve” is rather wonderful. Christina presents herself as the kind of woman who mistreats her lover just to see how truly committed he is, singing: “I say some fucked up shit just to hurt ya, but you know I do it all because I love ya”. The song writing and rhyme scheme is incredibly tight as Christina transitions from whispered verses to a show stopping chorus with considerable ease.

“Twice” feels like a real throwback to cinematic 90s pop with its grandiose piano keys and melodramatic structure. It’s easy to imagine her dreamily starring out of a rainy window as the color drains from the screen and the shot dissolves into a montage of heart-breaking memories from a once loving relationship. In 2018 this kind of songcraft feels contrived, but it is so perfectly suited to Aguilera. She is a dramatic ham and she shouldn’t be ashamed of that fact. It’s hard not to root for her when she wistfully shakes her head, cracks a smile and concludes the track by ruminating, “were you devil, were you angel, it’s too late to change my mind, it’d do it all again and not think twice”.

It feels strange, after the album starts with such defiance and self-reliance, to end with a pair of ballads that speak to enduring love. Odd as it might be, this is what Aguilera does best – and, backed principally by piano, she never strikes a bum note. Sure, she doesn’t stumbles upon an original idea or a knock out hook either, but “Masochist” and “My Love Will Remain” are the kind of torch songs that will earn standing ovations from 20,000 seater arenas whenever she decides to tour this album.

Liberation is a strange one: a three headed monster that can’t be reconciled. Aguilera starts that album with daring production and the promise to tell it like it is. She’s free from the platitudinous world of The Voice and is ready to rip the patriarchal record industry to shreds. It’s thrilling and urgent, even if the songs don’t uniformly hit their mark, but then, Christina begins to pander. She attempts to ride a selection of rap beats and never finds a swagger or sexuality that feel true to her or her character. Then, in a final curveball, she lunches a series of classic big room ballads that might be tried and tested, but are utterly flawless in their execution.

So what does this all add up to? The album is dynamic, daring and muddled, but also passé, indebted and professional. Liberation is a all over the place thematically and, aside from “Fall In Line”, rarely hits the highest of heights. Neither a hit factory nor a confessional journey, Christina presents an album that falls well short of greatness, but is worthy because it tries (and sporadically manages) to achieve.

The final score: review Average
The 411
Christina is back in the studio after six years with Liberation, an album that threatens to battle both record industry chauvinism and the tedium of The Voice, but quickly loses focus. Perfectly pitched ballads and incisive subject matter are counterbalanced by middling pop songs and a misguided attempt at a hip hop conversion in this mixed bag of an LP.

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Christina Aguilera, David Hayter