Liberation as a theme has frequently figured into the albums of female pop singers recently freed from the shackles of their (typically male) handlers. But the latest artist to employ emancipation as a pop narrative seemingly already took control of her career more than a decade and a half ago, when she tossed on a pair of assless chaps and anointed herself with the porn-grade moniker Xtina. Ironically, it was Christina Aguilera’s creative autonomy—which later resulted in the two-disc concept album Back to Basics, followed by an innovative but uneven foray into electro-pop, Bionic—that likely derailed her career and prompted her to release the catchy but safe Lotus in 2012.
The exact nature of the autonomy that Aguilera is celebrating on Liberation, then, might not be instantly apparent. The commercial failure of her previous two efforts may have freed her from multi-platinum expectations, but it’s more likely that she’s reveling in freedom of a personal kind. “So tired of painting on all this makeup/’Cause it won’t hide my defects,” Aguilera sings on “Maria,” echoing her recently declared intentions to strip back the aesthetic and musical theatrics that have come to define her work. Produced by Kanye West, the song purportedly finds Aguilera reclaiming her love of music as an outlet for escape, boldly mixing show tunes, Motown, and hip-hop. It doesn’t always work—the sped-up vocal samples from Michael Jackson’s “Maria (You Were the Only One)” are a retread of a gimmick West wore out years ago—but this bonkers approach to pastiche surely sounds like liberation.
The album’s first single, the deliciously weird “Accelerate,” is even more forward-minded. “Come on, babe, pick up your speed,” Aguilera beckons, but the track never takes off like one might expect, content to bustle along on a perpetually shifting beat, rumbling electro bassline, and skittering trap effects, fading out while the singer sensually vamps over a minimal backing track. Unfortunately, the rest of Liberation plays it frustratingly safe, relying on smooth, competent R&B like “Deserve” and “Pipe.” And though Aguilera delivers a characteristically virtuosic performance on the stripped-down power ballad “Unless It’s with You” and a slinky, understated vocal on the dancehall-infused “Right Moves,” she turns it up to 10 from the very first bar of the funk-lite “Sick of Sittin’,” leaving her (and the song) with nowhere to go.
The album is otherwise liberated from the sonic bombast that has marred Aguilera’s past releases. But her no less nagging penchant for indulgent interludes and inviting her children into the recording booth rears its head here. Liberation opens with a dramatic, cinematic overture that, like the reference to The Sound of Music on the intro to “Maria,” feels jarring on an album so steeped in contemporary R&B and hip-hop. The biggest offender is a prologue to the duet “Fall In Line” that features young girls—including Aguilera’s three-year-old daughter, Summer Rain—expressing their life and career aspirations. A final declaration, “I wanna be president,” is especially poignant, but it’s a sentiment that’s less head-thuddingly delivered by the gritty feminist anthem that follows. And that’s saying something.