Liberation arrives in 2018, six years after Lotus, by far the longest stretch of time between Christina Aguilera albums. During that hiatus Aguilera wasn't exactly in hibernation but she wasn't prominent, taking a couple of seasons off from the televised singing competition The Voice to raise a child and spending as much time onscreen as she did on-stage when she re-emerged in the middle of the 2010s. Aguilera may have been omnipresent in showbiz but she was largely absent from the pop charts. Save a handful of duets -- "Moves Like Jagger," which appeared in 2011 in the first flush of The Voice's success; "Feel This Moment," a 2013 Pitbull hit; "Say Something," a 2013 Great Big World single featuring Christina on vocals -- Aguilera hadn't reached the American Top Ten since 2008's "Keeps Gettin' Better," fanbait added to her hits collection of the same name.
Lotus was designed to reverse this downward trajectory, but despite having its share of gleaming dance-pop, it didn't generate a pop hit. Liberation seems to be constructed as a response to its failure, as it finds Aguilera abandoning shiny hooks for hip-hop beats and smoldering ballads. Despite the fleeting presence of Kanye West and Anderson .Paak, who are both credited as producers, Liberation isn't a record designed for the clubs. Much of the album is devoted to moody moments of self-reflection and anthems of empowerment, giving the distinct impression that Aguilera is figuring out how to mature within the confines of chart-oriented music. Certainly, Christina spends a fair amount of time singing about lasting love and motherhood, even offering a MeToo anthem in the form of "Fall in Line," a dense, angry duet with Demi Lovato. Such reflection and measured outrage lend Liberation a gravity lacking in other Aguilera records, and its sober perspective carries over to "Sick of Sittin'," an infectious piece of diamond-hard funk that finds Aguilera leaning into a newfound rasp in her voice. Christina's growth as a writer and singer helps balance her lingering sentimental streak, a tendency that can occasionally curdle into the saccharine. This stickiness can be a shade too mawkish, but the greater flaw of Liberation is how its blend of R&B reflection and tense testifying doesn't seem to be an easy fit on any format in 2018. This weakness is also a strength, as it shows that Aguilera didn't take an easy route with Liberation: she instead found a hybrid between the personal and commercial, which makes the record resonate emotionally no matter what success it may or may not have. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine