What is Christina Aguilera feeling emancipated from? you may ask, digging into “Liberation,” her first album in close to six years. One track offers some tantalizing clues. “I ain’t built for no fake shit,” she wails, almost gutturally, over rock guitars and faux crowd noise produced by Anderson .Paak. “It’s good pay,” she additionally points out, but “I can’t move with these chains on me / I had to get free. … This ain’t a game to me.” The song title: “Sick of Sittin’.” Now, if it were any other star expressing an animus toward chairs, we might think she was speaking figuratively. But it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to divine that this openly disenchanted ex-“Voice” jurist really has written one of the few breakup songs ever to celebrate splitting up with a TV show.
There are other titular connotations along the way. Deliverance from the patriarchy, for instance, is the theme of “Fall in Line,” the feminist duet with Demi Lovato that had its live premiere on the recent Billboard Music Awards show. Truth be told, though, Aguilera could have named almost any of her previous records “Liberation,” since she’s usually advancing a reactive narrative every time she releases an album, whether it’s freeing herself from innocent teen pop with “Stripped” or freeing herself from being seen as a rootless sexpot with “Back to Basics” or going electro with “Bionic”; even 2012’s underwhelming “Lotus” was “a rebirth.” The gorgeous cover art for “Liberation” promises another kind of real-deal breakthrough, with the onetime “Naked” singer embracing nakedness in makeup and a freckles-and-all ethos.
The 15-track collection within, though, bears signs that Aguilera didn’t completely settle on what kind of album she wanted to make over the four years she recorded tracks for the project. It’s diffuse enough that when a producer makes a repeat appearance, the results tend to be pretty different from one to the next. Take Kanye West’s two production contributions: “Maria” (which generously samples the 1971 Michael Jackson number of the same name) is a deeply personal, melodramatic, over-the-top scorcher about looking to reclaim the child inside (Maria being Aguilera’s middle name). “Accelerate,” on the other hand, is a peculiar hookup with Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz meant to further establish her hip-hop bona fides — and it sure is a lot more fun, even if it’s by no means a hit, and even if she nearly gets lost in West’s fray.
The general rule for “Liberation” is that the less hard Aguilera sounds like she’s trying, the more enjoyable the album is. That certainly applies to the delightful “Right Moves,” an airily erotic piece of pop-dancehall that has the singer extolling the pleasures of doing it “on a glass table,” “on a wood staircase” and “on the cold concrete.” (Maybe that counts as trying too hard, in its fashion, but at least the track itself is painless.) That’s in contrast to the heavy-handedness of the Lovato duet, a well-intended power ballad done in by unclear messages about modesty and empowerment and a distorted male voice that kills the vibe right when you want to hear two of pop’s great vocal power brokers tag-team-slaying it.
But a couple of songs live up to the un-cosmetic cover image. (The self-consciously sassy “Sick of Sittin’,” for all its intrigue value, isn’t one of them.) The scenes-from-a-marriage “Deserve” is very much in the conversational, hash-it-out style of Julia Michaels, who co-wrote it with producer MNEK, but Aguilera easily slips it on for size as if Michaels’ issues are her own. And the token-organic-ballad closer, “Unless It’s With You,” makes you wish she’d done more than one track with Meghan Trainor enabler Ricky Reed. Here, Aguilera, who’s been engaged for more than four years, sings about being marriage-phobic but ready to take the plunge. She makes her hesitant liberation from singlehood sound even more vital than her glorious decampment from a TV seat.
Producers: Nicholas Britell, Kanye West, Che Pope, Anderson .Paak, Mell Beats, GSP, Bryan “Composer” Nelson, Kosine, MNEK, Kirby Lauryen, Mike Dean, Sango, Neenyo, Darhyl “Hey DJ” Camper Jr., Tim Anderson, Ricky Reed, Aguilera
Guest performers: Demi Lovato, Keida, Shenseea, GoldLink, Ty Dolla Sign, 2 Chainz, XNDA