Xtina is, hands down, one of the greatest vocalists of her generation. And she has spent the better part of two decades figuring out what exactly to do with that voice. There was the bubblegum of her self-titled 1999 debut and her transition into R&B-infused, low-rise jean’d adulthood. Then came concepts: old school sound of 2006’s Back to Basics and the electro-futurism of 2010’s Bionic. There have been hits and misses along the way, but one of Aguilera’s greatest attributes is that she has rarely played it safe.
On Liberation, she gets closer than ever to zeroing in on the right path for her immense skills: her eighth album is a healthy mix of hit-chasing, theatrics and soon-to-be classic power ballads that emphasize her immense skills over half-baked conceptual themes.
She kicks things off with the LP’s orchestral title track, composed and performed by Nicholas Britell who gained an Oscar nomination for the Moonlight score. It’s the first of many left-field collaborations, ranging from a pair of rare Kanye West pop productions (including the album’s raucous lead single “Accelerate,” featuring 2 Chainz and Ty Dolla $ign) to an appearance by Anderson .PAAK. “Searching for Maria” even briefly covers Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Maria,” from The Sound of Music.
The front half of the album runs a little less smooth than the back half. The jump from Broadway to trap drills to “Beat It”-like metal-pop is a bit jarring, though individually each song is a fun, exploratory romp from Aguilera. Once the album hits “Fall in Line,” the empowering Demi Lovato duet, it hits its stride. Is there anything a vocal run battle between two generations of Disney-bred pop divas can’t fix?
From there, Liberation enters a hazy, summer-ready, drunk-on-a-beach vibe with tracks like the reggae-inflected “Right Moves” and the GoldLink-assisted “Like I Do,” a sexy assertion of power in a romance with a less successful, younger lover. She references R. Kelly’s “You Remind Me of My Jeep” on the alluring “Pipe” and reflects on bad relationships decisions above an airy, Peter Gabriel-esque synth on “Masochist.”
The album’s crown jewel, however, arrives at the very end. “Unless It’s With You,” co-written by frequent Shawn Mendes collaborator Teddy Geiger and produced by Ricky Reed, is a simple, gorgeous and memorable romantic ballad, surely something that can sit alongside “Beautiful” as one of her seminal performances. Raw and moving, it’s Xtina at her peak, expanding on the remarkable talent that made her stand out amongst a sea of teeny-bopper bubblegummers while also making her the leading voice in the 21st century’s own class of pop divas. Once again, she proves she does indeed have the range.