Review: Christina Aguilera – Liberation

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It’s been a long road to “Liberation” for Christina Aguilera. From childhood stardom as a Mouseketeer to the release of her first hit single, “Genie In A Bottle”, while still in her teens, Christina has grown up in the spotlight. While she’s always remained within the loosely defined boundaries of mainstream pop, she’s never been one to shy away from taking risks and has redefined herself as an artist time and time again. She moved quickly from bilingual bubblegum to the memorable chaps-clad high of “Stripped”, to a brief and not terribly successful romance with electronica, to the slow fade of “Lotus”. Now, with nearly two decades in the pop world under her belt, Christina Aguilera takes us back to the beginning in search of her inner child and with that, a sweet release from trend-dependent expectations of her as an artist.

“Where are you? Are you there? Remember.” A hushed voice beckons us to follow her on this journey. Playfully and mysteriously, Aguilera sets up the album to be wild and unpredictable from the start. On the title track, these questions, whispered over a hauntingly beautiful orchestral piece by the Oscar-nominated composer of the “Moonlight” score, Nicholas Britell, are interspersed with a child’s laughter. It’s followed by a half-spoken, half-sung rendition of lines from “The Sound of Music” asking, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Maria, of course, is the name of the main character in the 1965 musical starring Julie Andrews, and is Aguilera’s middle name.

It’s here that the album’s title clicks into place. This is an album of individual and community. Yes, Aguilera is letting go of the built-up baggage of adulthood and hearkening back to the freedom of childhood. But she’s also calling for women, collectively, to shed the anchors of stereotypes and gendered expectations in order to find their own purpose in the world. “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” Perhaps by recognizing Maria isn’t a problem at all.

We follow our heroine straight into the beat-heavy track, “Maria”, which features liberal sampling of The Jackson 5 song of the same name. From there, it’s a rollicking ride through 80s synth, a smattering of trap, reggae, gospel, funk rock, and, of course, contemporary hip-hop – which seems to be Aguilera’s newest course – and the style of the lead single “Accelerate” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz.

It’s a hefty album with 15 distinct tracks. It was produced over the course of four years, during which time Aguilera had her second child and left her position as a long-time coach on The Voice. Since her departure, she’s unabashedly spoken out about feeling artistically constrained while on the show and pushed toward an image not quite herself. In interviews leading up to this album’s release, she’s said she feels the need to show her children what she is meant to do – what she’s able to do – and not just what is easy and safe. She needs to find her truth, as she puts it. It’s no surprise, then, that this album, which signals her return to original music after such a hiatus, is dedicated to the freedom born of rediscovery, of returning to her roots and doing music for the sake of music, alone.

Breaking up to pursue artistic independence has long been the forte of top-list groups. The Beatles spawned the successful independent careers of Paul, John, and George. After years as a duo, OutKast split, once again, into Big Boi and Andre 3000. As a solo artist, Aguilera has no one to break up with but herself and in a way, she’s done that with her stylized and trend-dependent past personas in an effort to find her core. “Liberation” sees Aguilera shedding her pop star identity to some degree and branching out into true experimentation. None of the songs necessarily shout hit, but they feel intentionally organic. This is an album of exploration, with many of the tracks featuring intriguing and sometimes downright surprising partnerships.

Demi Lovato and Christina Aguilera dish up a call for female empowerment in their powerful duet, “Fall In Line”. The 2003 single “Can’t Hold Us Down” had fighting words, this song brings with it the confidence of age. It’s a firm foot-plant. It’s a message to all the young women who lend their voices to the spoken track “Dreamers”, which is a mash-up of answers to the age-old question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Journalist, musician, and president are all options. In the words of one girl, “I will make myself heard.”

Career fans will finally see Christina Aguilera stretch her wings for real, while newcomers will get a taste of what this diva can do, having come fully into her own. She has used her powerful voice to make herself heard – on her own terms this time.

 
Written by Shady Grove Oliver

Shady Grove Oliver is a freelance journalist based in northern England. She grew up in southern California listening to a mash-up of Mozart, Doc Watson, and Tupac (with a peppering of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa). She’s hosted world music shows on public radio stations from New York City to Alaska, and still can’t help but dance when “La Macarena” comes on.

 
Author’s rating for Liberation

Pop Magazine’s official rating for Liberation

Rating key
MASTERPIECE a must-have
SUPERB for heavy rotation
EXCELLENT a great achievement
VERY GOOD a respectable result
GOOD worth checking out
FAIR an average outcome
WEAK not convincing stuff
BAD an underwhelming effort
VERY BAD quite a waste
FAIL a total failure

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