The Week In Pop

Christina Aguilera’s New Album Is Pretty Good. Does Anyone Care?

Along with her fellow ex-Mousketeers Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera proved to be one of the most durable hit-makers of the Y2K-era teen-pop explosion. Long after most of their peers found alternate careers in show business or disappeared from pop culture entirely, these artists kept sending singles to the top 10. Spears survived her period of mid-aughts tumult and found an EDM-era second wind. Timberlake twice took off long stretches between albums then returned to dominate at will. And Aguilera held onto the spotlight well into this decade through collaborations with Maroon 5 (“Moves Like Jagger”), Pitbull (“Feel This Moment”), and A Great Big World (“Say Something”).

Xtina was the best singer in that TRL-era scene, blessed with a churchy power and grit that translated equally well to ballads like “Beautiful,” rockers like “Fighter,” and retro party-starters like “Ain’t No Other Man” and “Come On Over (All I Want Is You).” More so than many of her peers, girl could really let it rip. Like Mariah Carey with a deeper timbre, she seemed suited to keep howling away on hits for years to come.

But even the most resilient pop stars run out of hits eventually. Just ask Carey — or Spears, who narrowly missed the top 10 for the first time with 2013’s Britney Jean (“Work Bitch” topped out at #12) and made even less of an impact with 2016’s Glory. Even Timberlake, who hit #1 with “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” two years ago and sold many copies of Man Of The Woods this past winter, has not been his usual radio-defining self this album cycle. As for Aguilera, it’s been 10 years since she scored a true hit off one of her own albums with the title track from 2008’s Keeps Gettin’ Better: A Decade Of Hits, a set that now stands as a reminder of what a powerhouse she can be when turned lose on the right material.

She’s been having trouble finding that material ever since. To be fair, Xtina hasn’t actually released an album in six years, but her efforts early this decade weren’t exactly the foundation of a second greatest hits collection. 2010’s Bionic attempted to cash in on the burgeoning EDM craze and borrowed hipster cred — collaborators included M.I.A., Le Tigre, and Peaches — but failed to connect at radio. 2012’s more straightforward Lotus leaned on Eminem favorite Alex Da Kid and the sparkling Swedish touch of Max Martin and Shellback but made even less of an impact. Since then she’s been better known as a TV personality on The Voice than a presently vital pop star.

Thus far Liberation, the album she’s dropping tonight at long last, has continued that downward trend. At least Bionic had “Not Myself Tonight” at #23 and Lotus had “Your Body” at #34. By contrast, of the four Liberation tracks revealed in advance, none has even cracked the Hot 100 — this despite quite a few collaborators who’ve had chart success themselves recently, including Kanye West, Demi Lovato, Ty Dolla $ign, and Jon Bellion. It has been the tree falling in the forest of big-budget pop releases, except the tree probably has more hits.

The public’s indifference is a shame because those Liberation singles have been a fascinating array. The weirdest and best of them, “Accelerate,” was produced by Kanye West, which these days means Kanye and his roomful of collaborators teamed up on it, including Mike Dean, Che Pope, Charlie Heat, the Honorable C.N.O.T.E., and Eric Danchick. As with Yeezy’s own recent releases, the result is controlled chaos — in this case raw, deconstructed hip-hop house music with lo-fi asides from Ty Dolla $ign and a trap breakdown featuring 2 Chainz. “Accelerate” is adrenalized and catchy and strange; think of it as Aguilera’s very own “SexyBack,” but with room for fluttering diva action on the chorus. It may be a mess, but it’s an extremely fun and entertaining mess. It deserves to be celebrated.

“Fall In Line,” a duet with fellow belter Lovato also involving “All Time Low” singer Bellion, charts a more conventional path but is also rewarding. A slow-burn slap with a dramatic splendor that verges on early Portishead, its brassy foundation gives Aguilera and Lovato plenty of real estate to soulfully emote. The elevator pitch: Two talented women who’ve been through the music-industry wringer share messages of wisdom and warning with the next generation. Their messages sound broadcast from a hostile environment; as the song reaches its climax, a pitched-down male voice rattles off commands such as “Shut your mouth/ Stick your ass out for me” and asks, “Who told you you’re allowed to think?”

On the album it’s preceded by “Dreamers,” an interlude featuring young girls reciting their plans to become a screenwriter, a journalist, a doctor, a president, a lioness, a superhero. “I’m the boss of my own world,” says one voice. “I want to be heard. I will make myself heard.” This optimism, matched with a sobering knowledge of how this world chews up so many women, amplifies already poignant lyrics such as, “All the youth in the world will not save you from growing older/ And all the truth in a girl is too precious to be stolen from her.”

Supposedly Liberation is an album about living that truth by throwing off the shackles of expectation. It does so first of all by mashing up Rodgers & Hammerstein with Michael Jackson. After an instrumental opener that hits like a film score, the second track finds Aguilera singing “Maria” from The Sound Of Music: “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” This segues into the third track and first proper song, another Kanye co-write, which samples Jackson’s own “Maria.” Against soaring strings and trap drums, she wails, “How am I supposed to face this lonely life I’ve created?” She paints an image of a muzzled iconoclast whose whole world is falling apart. The music is decent, but it’s much more compelling as a narrative jump-off point than a dazzling album opener.

Far more electrifying, sonically speaking, is “Sick Of Sittin’,” one of two collaborations with polyglot soul man Anderson .Paak. Although the squelchy, bouncy MILF encounter “Like I Do” is the .Paak production that made its way online in advance, “Sick Of Sittin'” is the superior option. A cascade of distorted guitar riffs and thundering drum fills nicked from ABBA guitarist Janne Schaffer’s “No Registration,” it functions similarly to “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” Beyoncé’s Jack White throwdown from Lemonade. Atop heavy percussion that sounds repurposed from a live concert, Xtina goes full Joplin, roaring, “I can’t live with these chains on me! I have to get free!”

Those cries ring true — especially considering how many scrapped sessions she had to endure before ending up with this tracklist — but if Liberation is the sound of Aguilera cutting loose, it also checks off a lot of recent-vintage pop trends. There is a dancehall track called “Right Moves” featuring rising Kingston star Shenseea. There is a synth-driven ’80s pop throwback called “Masochist.” There is “Deserve,” a minimalist ballad produced by MNEK with lyrics unmistakably penned by Julia Michaels: “Sometimes I don’t think I deserve ya/ So I say some fucked-up shit just to hurt ya/ But you know I do it all ’cause I love ya/ So baby, tell me I’m the one that deserves ya.” Not that the brazen bid for a hit is troublesome — all of these songs are good — but if this is her vision of freedom, it runs suspiciously parallel to the top 40 zeitgeist.

Some of the most satisfying tracks are the ones that call back to ’90s pop-R&B — another trendy sound right now, and one Aguilera herself caught the tail end of the first time around. “Pipe,” a breathy boom-bap track with a verse from an un-Google-able rapper named XNDA (assuming he’s not the progressive house DJ who goes by the same name), emanates subtle swagger. It feels like something Aguilera might have recorded back in her early days, minus the lyric “I need some receipts.” Meanwhile album closer “Unless It’s With You,” produced by MOR mastermind Ricky Reed, is a piano-led love song that ends the album with surprising earnestness: “I don’t want to get married unless it’s with you.”

Really the only time Liberation drags is when she follows the low-key “Deserve” with two more downers, the percussion-free advance single “Twice” and a gospel-inflected interlude called “I Don’t Need It Anymore.” But at that point “Accelerate” sweeps in to revive the album’s pulse, one of many stylistic switch-ups that reaffirm Aguilera’s ability to hold her own on just about any kind of pop song. She’s like Beyoncé in that way, and although Liberation is not in Lemonade’s league — not even close — the albums share a genre-hopping ethos, an abundance of potential hits, and a truly phenomenal singer with charisma to spare. The difference is nobody seems to be paying attention to Aguilera right now. They’re missing out.

CREDIT: Natt Lim/Getty Images for Coachella

CHART WATCH

We have a new #1 song in America! Post Malone and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Psycho,” which has been lingering in the top 5 ever since its release back in February, finally made it to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. It’s Post’s second #1 following “Rockstar” and the first for Ty Dolla $ign. Per Billboard this makes 20 straight weeks with a rap song at #1.

The previous #1, Drake’s “Nice For What,” slides down to #2 again after six nonconsecutive weeks on top. (It was previously displaced by Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” for a couple weeks.) Then comes Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin’s “I Like It” at a new #3 peak; it’s Bad Bunny’s highest-charting hit and ties Balvin’s personal best chart placement with “Mi Gente.” Speaking of Cardi her Maroon 5 collab “Girls Like You” shoots all the way from #94 to #4 thanks to its star-studded video; it’s the second time Cardi has been on two top-5 hits simultaneously following a similar stint with Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” and G-Eazy’s “No Limit.”

Drake, too, still has two songs in the top 5 thanks to “God’s Plan” holding on at #5. Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up” reaches a new peak at #6. Childish Cambino’s “This Is America” is at #7, and then comes the #8 debut of “Yikes” by Kanye West. (Other Ye debuts: “All Mine” at #11, “Ghost Town” at #16, “Wouldn’t Leave” at #25, “Violent Crimes” at #27, “I Thought About Killing You” at #28, and “No Mistakes” at #36.) “Yikes” is Kanye’s 16th top-10 hit and first since “FourFiveSeconds” with Rihanna and Paul McCartney in 2015; it’s the first time one of his songs has debuted in the top 10 since Drake’s “Forever” in 2009.

One more milestone near the top of the Hot 100 this week: Depressed sing-rapper Juice WRLD scores his first top-10 hit with “Lucid Dreams” rising to #9. Rounding out the frame is Zedd, Maren Morris, and Grey’s “The Middle” at #10.

As you might have guessed based on the high Hot 100 placement of all seven Ye tracks, the album becomes Kanye’s eighth straight #1 album this week, accruing 208,000 equivalent album units including 85,000 in traditional sales. According to Billboard, that ties him with Eminem among rappers for second most chart-topping albums on the Billboard 200; Jay-Z is far ahead of them both on the all-time rappers list with 14 #1s, while the Beatles lead all artists with 19.

After Post Malone at #2 comes Ghost, whose Prequelle enters at a career-best #3 on 66,000 units/61,000 sales. They’re one of many acts lately to benefit from album-ticket bundles. Country singer Luke Combs reaches #4, also a career best, with a deluxe version of This One’s For You featuring five new songs. Its 55,000 units tops the album’s debut week total of 43,000 from last summer. After Cardi B at #5 is Juice WRLD, whose Goodbye & Good Riddance climbs to a new #6 peak with 42,000 units. The Greatest Showman, Shawn Mendes, Lil Baby, and Jason Isbell round out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Troye Sivan – “Dance To This” (Feat. Ariana Grande) & Nicki Minaj – “Bed” (Feat. Ariana Grande)
It’s raining Ariana Grande features! Neither “Dance To This” nor “Bed” are masterpieces, but both are warmly inviting adult contemporary pop tracks I am content to vibe with. Advantage “Dance To This” for now.

Jeremih & Ty Dolla $ign – “The Light”
Ty Dolla $ign is on the #1 song in America right now. Let that sink in. Bask in it. And then enjoy “The Light” and think on what we as a society can do to get Jeremih there next.

UPDATE: LOL, here is Ty Dolla $ign on the new Bhad Bhabie single too.

Kim Petras – “Can’t Do Better”
As far as humongous shout-from-the-mountaintop choruses go, I’m not sure you can do better.

Macy Gray – “Sugar Daddy”
Who would have thought Macy Gray singing a Meghan Trainor song would eliminate the annoying aspects of both artists?

gnash – “Imagine If”
“Imagine what the world’d be like if everybody stayed in love/ If everybody stayed offline.” That does sound pretty nice. I might not ever have heard this song, for instance!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Post Malone got the words “Always Tired” tattooed under his eyes. [Instagram]
  • Taylor Swift stars as a homewrecker in Sugarland’s Mad Men-style “Babe” video. [YouTube]
  • Rita Ora reflected on the controversy over “Girls” in a new interview. [Billboard]
  • BTS brought “Fake Love” to Corden. [YouTube]
  • Marshmello (and Ninja) won a celebrity Fortnite tournament, raising $1M for charity. [NPR]
  • French Montana is now a US citizen. [TMZ]
  • Julia Michaels and Trippie Redd released a “Jump” video. [YouTube]
  • Charlie Puth covered Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood” in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Maroon 5’s surprise new single is a Bob Marley cover recorded for a Hyundai commercial tied to the World Cup. [YouTube]
  • Alessia Cara has been messaging fans lyrics to her new song that’s out tomorrow. [Twitter]
  • Kygo teased an Imagine Dragons collab. [Instagram]
  • 5 Seconds Of Summer covered Alice Merton’s “No Roots” for the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Miley Cyrus will appear on TNT’s tribute to George Clooney on 6/22. [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

Don’t forget the little moments.

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