Love her or hate her, pop music needs Christina Aguilera. In an era of synthesizers and Call Me Maybes, it’s rare a vocalist like Aguilera even makes it onto the radio, much less endures for a decade. On her seventh studio release, Lotus, Aguilera is in a rare position to fuse superior musical ability with modern pop production—a task that this album does not take as seriously as it should.
While a vast improvement from 2010’s Bionic that all but masked Aguilera’s voice with tepid club beats, Lotus can’t seem to find a consistent sound, melding pop numbers with bluesy rock anthems. The album at times feels like a natural outgrowth of her strongest effort, 2002’s rock-soul fusion, Stripped, but caves to the pressure of commercial numbers every few tracks.
The chief problem is the myriad of producers who each contribute a different style. It’s almost as if Aguilera booked every producer with a smash from the past three years, including Max Martin (Britney Spears), Alex da Kid (B.o.B) and Supa Dups (Drake).
“Red Hot Kinda Love” has Max Martin written all over it, perhaps the album’s standout pop hit, but one that could have easily been on Britney Spears’s Femme Fatale. The same goes for Lotus‘s first single, “Your Body.”
After admitting that this album was inspired by her work on NBC’s The Voice, Aguilera curiously stated on her VEVO channel that she was finally “secure enough to embrace being a pop star.” An odd comment coming from the singer who spent much of the last decade dirtying, piercing and wailing against the sugary image built for her breakout single, 1999’s “Genie in a Bottle.”
Perhaps what Aguilera is getting at is essentially the travesty of her career: that even individuals with superior talent and stylistic diversity must eventually become pop stars, stuck infusing smut with soul. A truth that makes tracks like “Red Hot Kinda Love” only ephemerally fun.
Aguilera appears more at ease outside of pure pop, bringing impressive vocal stylings to “Let There Be Love,” a chilled out electronica offering in the vein of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and Usher’s “Numb.”
Lotus resurrects the acoustic vulnerability of Stripped with the ballads. “Blank Page” is wonderfully understated vocally for Aguilera, who also minimizes the production for a more nuanced piece. “Best of Me” is classic powerhouse, adhering to the Aguilera mantra of no good run goes unbelted.
Also harking back to the Stripped period are the affirmation anthems, “Around the World” and “Army of Me.” Here, Aguilera seems most comfortable, edging into a harder pop-rock sound currently perfected by her former nemesis, Pink.
In almost a stylistic aside, Aguilera brings a big band twist to “Make the World Move,” a collaboration with fellow The Voice judge Cee-Lo Green.
All in all, Aguilera does understand this is her moment to evolve—the themes of reinvention and survival are embedded lyrically in every track. In a rather sad way, the evolution is necessary. At 31, the divorced mother of one has reached middle age for a pop star. Her task is to evolve beyond the sappy radio pop into more mature music while maintaining her relevance—no easy feat in today’s market.
Lotus ultimately serves as an experiment, a way to pinpoint the style that will lead Aguilera into the future. While the album offers many possibilities, her path remains unclear.