Christina Aguilera
Magazine Feature

Christina Aguilera on 'Longing for Freedom' & Her Hip-Hop-Inspired Return to Music

Shortly before Christina Aguilera descends the staircase of her Mediterranean-style mansion to meet me in the ground-floor recording studio where I have been waiting, her assistant tiptoes in to prepare the room. She carefully sets an iced tea on a black, butterfly-shaped coffee table, next to a dish of Ricola cough drops and a small collection of baby-pink crystals. Then she dims the lights. It’s a brilliant afternoon outside in Beverly Hills, but in here it’s as dark as a womb. By the flickering light of a Diptyque candle, I observe a framed copy of Aguilera’s topless 2003 Maxim cover casually propped up next to the vocal booth.

“I like to keep it pretty moody and vibe-y,” says Aguilera when she materializes. She’s wearing black Adidas sweatpants, a black Balenciaga sweater and black, child-size Balenciaga slides on her teeny-tiny feet. She climbs onto a fuzzy oversized couch and explains, “I’m not a big daylight girl.”

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Lucky for Aguilera, she has been working nights in here. Now clear of The Voice, a “churning hamster wheel” where she spent much of 2011 through 2016 as a coach, the 37-year-old is preparing to release her first album in six years. Out June 15, it’s a tight, 11-song set titled Liberation, and it bends more toward R&B and hip-hop than any of her previous efforts. Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz appear on the record, Anderson .Paak worked on two tracks, and Kanye West produced two others, including “Maria,” a pulsing, intricately orchestrated piece that includes a Michael Jackson sample and an extended introduction in which Aguilera sings from The Sound of Music.

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Christina Aguilera photographed April 10 at Line 204 in Los Angeles. Styling by Zoe Costello. Aguilera wears a Helmut Lang jacket and Luv AJ rings.

“To me, there’s nothing like an amazing hip-hop beat,” says Aguilera, taking a sip of her tea. Though accusations of cultural appropriation have dogged many a pop star in recent years, Aguilera -- whose new album also includes a fiery duet with Demi Lovato and a song written with Julia Michaels -- is confident in her material, much of which she co-wrote. “At the end of the day, I am a soul singer,” she says. “When you strip back the words ‘pop star’ and the many things that I’ve done, singing soulfully is where my core, my root and my heart really is. And as you can see, it’s what I’m inspired by.”

She giggles and gestures around the studio, pointing perfectly manicured fingers at framed photos of Etta JamesNina Simone and Sarah Vaughan. Hanging in the nearby powder room, there’s a portrait of a shirtless 2Pac.

Aguilera giggles a lot. Given her undisputed diva status and distaste for daylight, I expected her to be reserved or aloof, but she’s warm -- touchy-feely, even. More than once, she reaches out to grab my arm while making a point.

Aguilera’s most recent hits have been collaborations, and they were decidedly pop: She joined A Great Big World on “Say Something,” a piano-driven monster ballad that hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013, and Maroon 5 for the massive, and massively unhip, 2011 No. 1 “Moves Like Jagger.” And her last two albums, 2012’s ballad-heavy Lotus and 2010’s electro experiment Bionic, weren't exactly edgy.

But this year’s comeback -- which will include her first tour in a decade, an eternity for a star of her caliber -- calls for the kind of “raw, gritty, grrr” that Aguilera says only R&B and hip-hop can give you. And not just because in her absence those genres came to dominate the charts: After five years devoted to the “energy sucker” that was The Voice, she says, “I was longing for freedom.” Coming home from the set, she remembers, “I would just take everything off -- the makeup, all of it -- and would blast hip-hop, or Nirvana, ‘Creep,’ Slayer. Anything like that to get me out of that zone, that TV mode.”

Aguilera’s last album was her worst-selling, but she’s not concerned with reconquering the charts. In the past, she says, she has been very unhappy even at some of her most successful moments. And to measure herself against previous commercial heights -- well, “I can’t do that to myself,” she says.

Especially right now -- with “so many different marches and people voicing their opinions and feeling OK to talk about things for the first time” -- Aguilera believes listeners will relate to a woman who found herself “suffocated and restricted” and suddenly realized, “What just happened here? I need to be woken up for a minute.”

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On the Back to Basics Tour in 2007.

She compares this moment in her career to 2002, when she was about to release Stripped, on which she shed her bubble-gum image in favor of beats, chaps and bikini tops. Back then, she says, “I felt super label-driven and confined [being] commercially successful. And as great as it looks on the outside, I’m such a truth girl that if I’m not happy with something, I just can’t do it anymore.”

This time, “stripping back” her image means something slightly different to Aguilera. Known for her elaborate hair and makeup (going back to her early-’00s black-and-blond braids), today she’s wearing her platinum blond hair pulled back into a bun, and just a touch of peony-colored lip gloss. Still, it’s a canny callback for Aguilera to make: The Stripped era seems to be the one for which the Instagram generation is most nostalgic. On Halloween 2016, Kylie Jenner shared photos and videos of herself dressed as Aguilera in the “Dirrty” music video, complete with chaps and a lip ring. One of the videos became the most-watched clip on Instagram that year. (Jenner was 5 in 2002.)

Aguilera was so touched by the send-up that she invited Jenner to her birthday party that December. “I said, ‘You have to come dressed in that getup,’” recalls Aguilera. The party had a “dress as your inner child” theme, she adds. “So I guess Kylie’s inner child was very dirty. But I love it! Because she speaks my language.”

Aguilera is breezy and expressive in conversation, addressing me, and referring to herself, as “girl.” In addition to labeling herself a “truth girl,” she describes herself as a “message-T-shirt girl,” a “cozy girl” and, of course, a “girl’s girl.” After chatting for a while in her studio -- sorry, “girl cave” -- she decides it’s time to take a drive.

The best way to assess the current mix of her album, she says, is to play it in the car. So we call up her assistant, who calls up her driver, who quickly ushers us into an enormous black Escalade with shades for the (heavily tinted) windows. Inside, there’s an ice bucket filled with Tito’s vodka and white wine, which Aguilera refrains from imbibing, because despite how dark she has made it in the vehicle, it’s still only 3 p.m.

As we pull out of the driveway and past mansions I can barely make out through the window, I ask Aguilera if she’s friends with any of her neighbors. She grabs my hand and rolls her eyes. Some of them. But others remind her of “Bewitched’s old Mrs. Kravitz, peeking through the windows like” -- she lowers her voice to a witchy whisper -- “‘What is she doing now?’” She likes DJ Khaled, who lives up the street. “He rides his little golf cart around the neighborhood,” she says.

And Kendall Jenner is moving into the neighborhood soon. “I went to [the Kardashians’] Christmas party, and the mom introduced us and was like, ‘You’re neighbors!’” she says as she fiddles with the entertainment system. “So I was like, ‘Yes, I have allies.’”

Perhaps Aguilera’s unnamed snoops in the cul-de-sac have a thing against loud music. As her driver winds the Escalade through the streets of the gated community, she pops in a CD (she doesn't trust other “tech stuff”) and plays “Accelerate.” It’s a booming club song featuring Ty Dolla $ign and 2 Chainz. Aguilera worries for a moment about blowing out the speakers, but then she turns it up even louder.

“I love 2 Chainz’s part,” she says, closing her eyes and bopping her head, just a little bit, to the beat. Before the last chorus blares, she makes a series of notes, in perfect cursive, on a small white pad. “There are some synthesizer sounds I need brought out a little bit,” she explains. “They’re a tiny bit pulled out, too weak.”

West produced the track. The two met in Rick Rubin’s Shangri La studio in Malibu, Calif., a few months before West released The Life of Pablo in 2016. He played her music off the album, and they talked “forever.” They also worked on “Maria,” which Aguilera says is her favorite song on Liberation. She fell out of touch with him when he later embarked on his Pablo tour. “There were some personal things that arose...” says Aguilera, alluding to West’s hospitalization for exhaustion in late 2016.

Less than two weeks after our conversation, West riles up the internet by tweeting about, among other things, his “brother” Donald Trump. But today, Aguilera speaks reverently of him. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Kanye,” she says, her pale blue eyes widening. “Outside of, you know, his controversial aspects, I just think he’s a great artist and musicmaker and beatmaker. The artists that he chooses to pluck from different walks of life are so interesting.”

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“I’ve always picked the heavy-handed makeup artists. It has been a lifelong thing to be like, ‘Cover the freckles.’ ” Aguilera wears a £UV PRODUCT shirt, Faith Connexion jacket and Acne sunglasses.

The “R&B/hip-hop flavor” of Liberation reflects Aguilera’s “personal taste,” confirms Keith Naftaly, head of A&R at her record label, RCA. “She loves urgent, hard beats.” Still, fans can rest assured that the album includes a Christina Aguilera empowerment anthem: her duet with Lovato, “Fall in Line.” Both belt it to the rafters (“I got a fire in my veins/I wasn't made to faaAAAAaaaaLLL in line”), and in keeping with Aguilera’s updated outlook, the introduction, “Dreamers,” features a group of young girls declaring goals like “I want to be a journalist,” “I want to be heard,” “I want to be president.”

Lovato credits Aguilera as a major influence. “I have always looked up to Christina,” she says. “I remember being at her concert and singing facing the crowd instead of the stage, knowing that that was exactly what I wanted to do in life.” She points out that there’s more to Aguilera’s legacy than leather chaps and coaching reality-show competitors: “She speaks up for what she believes in and sends a positive message, which are two things I find extremely important when given the platform we are lucky enough to have.”

Aguilera hasn't joined forces with a female singer on a single since 2001’s “Lady Marmalade,” which featured Lil Kim, Mya and P!nk. P!nk later said that a disagreement during the recording process sparked a feud between her and Aguilera, but in 2017 she tweeted that the two had made amends. Aguilera, for her part, says, “I’ve always appreciated women and have hated what this business can do to pit people against each other.” And she explains that she was thrilled when P!nk appeared on The Voice in 2016. “I was so excited -- even she was like, ‘Why is she so excited to see me?’” remembers Aguilera. “I was like, ‘Another female! There’s another vagina in the room! I’m so excited!’”

When I ask Aguilera if she’d ever return to The Voice, she scrunches up her porcelain face and says she would prefer to discuss “positive things.” Still, she can’t help but delve into what was wrong with the show, which was a lot. “It became something that I didn't feel was what I had signed up for in season one,” she says. “You realize it’s not about music. It’s about making good TV moments and massaging a story.

“I didn't get into this business to be a television show host and to be given all these [rules],” she continues. “Especially as a female: You can’t wear this, can’t say that. I would find myself on that show desperately trying to express myself through clothing or makeup or hair. It was my only kind of outlet.”

Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
On The Voice in 2016. 

Today, Aguilera’s more excited about her career than she has been in years. She’s thinking about a Latin album, more movie acting, “maybe even Broadway.” There’s just one thing hanging over her head: touring. This will be her first time on the road as a mother. She has a son (Max, 10) with her ex-husband, Jordan Bratman, and a daughter (Summer Rain, 3) with her fiance, Matthew Rutler. “Touring is so frightening to me, because I am a mom first,” she admits. “It’s part of why I stayed in the position I was [at The Voice]. It’s easy to get comfortable and cushy in the same place and not have to worry about uprooting your kids. I’ve been putting myself on the back burner.” But now, she says, “it needs to happen. I’m looking forward to getting back out and actually showing my kids what Mommy really does!”

Aguilera met Rutler, an executive at online-education platform MasterClass, on the set of the movie-musical Burlesque in 2010; he was a production assistant, and she was the star. They got engaged in 2014 but have yet to marry. (Aguilera is wearing about a dozen rings, including a silver one that says “Fuck,” but no traditional diamond.) Embarking on a second marriage, she says, is not a priority for her right now. But she enjoys domestic life.

“When I’m onstage, there’s not a bigger high, when I’m in connection with my voice and my heart and my soul,” she says. “But at the end [of a performance], I want to wipe it all off, get in my sweatpants, make silly noises with my kids and have someone comfort and cuddle me.”

Lately, of course, that domestic life has included a lot of riding in the back of this Escalade, playing the new songs over and over again. She would drive herself, except she never learned how. “I know,” she says, laughing at the absurdity of it. When she was old enough to get her license, she moved to Los Angeles to get a record deal, and the thought of driving here, with all the “road rages,” scared her. By the time she released her self-titled first album in 1999, hiring a driver was no problem: The disc debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, eventually selling 8.3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, and produced four top five singles on the Billboard Hot 100, three of them No. 1s.

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Aguilera with (from left) fiance Rutler, daughter Summer Rain and son Max Liron Bratman in 2017.

In the nearly 20 years since then, much has changed in music. Aguilera’s personal preferences aside, streaming has overtaken CDs, and other female stars have found great success, struggled with reinventions and, well, taken gigs on The Voice and American Idol. Some things have gotten better. It’s hard to imagine Eminem getting away with a sexually charged attack on a 19-year-old woman, as he did in 2000, targeting Aguilera on “The Real Slim Shady.” When I tell her I can’t believe that even happened, she says, “Yeah, absolutely. Things have definitely changed. What was great was how badass I was at such a young age to then write ‘Can’t Hold Us Down,’” her empowerment anthem from Stripped. “We are coming slowly but surely around a corner, not taking the things that we used to.” In fact, after all the years away, this might truly be her moment.

Aguilera’s driver pulls back into her driveway, and she squeezes my hand. “Write great things about me,” she says, before skipping out of the Escalade and back into her home to wait for the sun to go down.