Christina Aguilera’s “Liberation” aims to paint a picture of female empowerment, but leaves listeners with a muddled image instead.
Six years after the release of her pop-driven album “Lotus,” Aguilera hearkens back to the R&B and soul influence that characterizes her earlier work, also layering in more modern elements, such as trap beats reminiscent of Migos’ music. The album succeeds in incorporating relevant musical styles while maintaining Aguilera’s musical identity, but fails in its confused and often inconsistent lyrical messages.
“Liberation” is interspersed with brief interludes that extend thematically into the following song, often incorporating a spoken word structure that alleviates the intensity of Aguilera’s vocals. The interludes metaphorically symbolize the power women possess – in “Searching For Maria,” Aguilera asks, “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” Meanwhile the eponymous opening song “Liberation” is nothing more than a simple piano melody layered with little girls’ laughter. Aguilera speaks but does not sing, the orchestra intensifying as the singer implores her audience to “remember,” and leaves the piece’s meaning open to the listener’s interpretation.
The spoken word portions of the album are its greatest source of humility, directly prioritizing themes of female empowerment. They complement the songs by drawing attention to the lyrics’ impassioned cries rather than Aguilera’s impressive vocal acrobatics that define most of the album.
The interludes have the added benefit of subtlety. “Dreamers”, the interlude to “Fall in Line,” omits Aguilera completely and consists of young girls proudly stating their dreams to be lions and princesses, as well as journalists and presidents. Placing aspirations of being fairytale characters alongside positions of substantial influence implies that both kinds of dreams are taken with equal gravitas, enhancing the album’s overall theme without feeling heavy-handed.
“Fall in Line,” the second single, features fellow powerhouse vocalist Demi Lovato and aligns itself proudly alongside the women’s empowerment movement. The song begins with the heavy clunk of chains, utilizing the symbol of entrapment as an instrument of protest. The fiery lyrics incorporated over the metallic sounds show Aguilera’s refusal to be limited by her shackles. Aguilera similarly subverts catcalling later in the song, distorting male vocals that demand the two women to “shut (their) mouths” and explain “who told (them they’re) allowed think.” Aguilera’s and Lovato’s powerful belting stand out among the male voices, solidifying themselves against their oppressor.
But despite a promising beginning, the second half of “Liberation” drifts completely from the empowering messages toted in the first. “Right Moves,” featuring Keida and Shenseea, follows Aguilera and Lovato’s anthem, and the upbeat Jamaican tune positions itself as a playful break from the intensity of the preceding song.
However, “Right Moves” begins a long line of mindless, sex-driven pop bops like “Pipe” and “Masochist” that construe themselves as sexually empowered. However, with lyrics, such as “C’mon and pound it out,” “Right Moves” only drives Aguilera farther into the shackles she claims to have shed in “Fall in Line.” The songs depict carnal sex without delving into its relation to sexual liberation.
Following the lyrical crassness of “Right Moves,” the forgettable “Like I Do” accrues tone-deaf hypocrisy by coming after “Fall in Line” – a song about finding the power in one’s voice – with the lyric, “You’re so much better when you don’t speak.” The fluttering flute lick that controls the instrumental of “Like I Do” does little to salvage what is ultimately the weakest of the album’s filler songs.
Placed later in the album, “Liberation’s” lead single “Accelerate” exemplifies the most glaring aspects of Aguilera’s tonal confusion. It attempts to incorporate ’80s synths, electronica drones and an odd, clock-like drumbeat while maintaining its credibility as a standard pop song. For the first time, Aguilera’s vocals sound flat, automated and soulless. The choppy verses boringly address Aguilera’s night at the club, clumsily signalling sexual independence through vague innuendos. Rapper Ty Dolla $ign occasionally butts in over Aguilera’s verses with extraneous “ehs,” sounding as if he recorded his verse with a bout of laryngitis.
The album closes with the raw, emotional ballad “Unless It’s With You,” which is perhaps the most traditional style of “Xtina” song on “Liberation,” complete with soaring vocals reminiscent of 2002’s “Stripped.” Lyrically, it explores the illusions of idealized love in tandem with a realistically happy relationship. Unlike the majority of the album’s second half, Aguilera asserts her authority as a woman by realizing that a man cannot make her happy if she is not content with herself.
“Liberation” would have been Aguilera’s strongest album since 2006’s “Back to Basics” had it stopped after the first half. Although her message on female empowerment is well-needed in the era of the #MeToo movement, Aguilera undermines any conversation she could have sparked with the tonally inconsistent “Liberation.”