Alicia Keys - Girl on Fire

Posted November 28, 2012
Tags: Alicia Keys,

Veteran R&B/pop songstress Alicia Keys has dropped new album Girl on Fire, via RCA Records. The singer's first full-length since 2009's The Element of Freedom, the project features 13 original records, including the set's lead single and title track, as well as featured cuts "Not Even the King."

Nicki Minaj and Maxwell make guest appearances throughout the LP, which features production by Keys herself along with production from Jeff Bhasker, Pop & Oak, Salaam Remi, Swizz Beatz, and The Smeezingtons.

Girl on Fire Album Review

It’s now been more than a decade since a 20-year-old Alicia Keys first blew open the doors of R&B with her debut album, Songs In A Minor, and since that time she’s been stunningly consistent, and consistently great. We’re talking over 35 million albums sold, numerous number one singles and fourteen Grammys. Yep, that’s right, fourteen. With the exception of Beyonce, Keys has been R&B’s unquestioned queen in the 21st century, but she never seemed as eager to sit on the throne as Queen B. Beyonce overwhelms us with her talent, Keys wraps hers around you like a kiss. Alicia has never seemed untouchable, more like the girl next door – if the girl next door just so happened to sing and play the piano better than nearly anyone else on the planet. Other than all that though, she’s no big deal.

One of the keys to Keys' longevity has been her ability to hold true to her classical roots while embracing new sounds. By avoiding the genre’s “hottest” trends she’s also avoided fading away alongside those trends, and her new album Girl on Fire is no different. With small exceptions (perhaps induced by her, it must be said, uber-trendy husband Swizz Beatz), Girl on Fire is in many ways her most complex and subtle project yet. Whether it’s a new marriage, motherhood, a more private revelation or a combination of all of them, Girl on Fire is, despite its title, absolutely the work of a supremely confident woman, and a pretty calm and cool one at that.

Fittingly the album’s more subdued and conversational tone is exemplified in the album’s opening track (minus an instrumental intro), Brand New Me. Before it builds into a triumphant crescendo Brand New Me is almost entirely simply a piano and Key’s vocals, a stripped down approach that only the most confident would dare try. That tendency towards the simple is echoed even more powerfully in 101, which spends its first five minutes with only the barest of instrumentation before exploding into a fully orchestrated second movement. And the album’s most easily enjoyed selection, Tears Always Win, harkens back to ‘60s soul in its approach. Here we’re about as far from popping bottles in the club, or even worse Auto-Tune, as we could possibly get, and it feels good.

That doesn’t mean Girl on Fire is completely devoid of more modern touches, including a Nicki Minaj opening verse on the title track that, even though Nicki’s as serious and non-insane as I can remember hearing her, ultimately sounds forced; it’s a musical appendix, easily removed without any harm to the host. Similarly, New Day is overflowing with Swizz Beatz' signature drums and uptempo snare lines, a sound that might make it a staple of NBA games and sports stadiums nationwide, but in headphones mostly serves to drown out the small vocal touches that make Alicia so unique in the first place. By contrast, Empire State of Mind managed to be even more epic while giving Keys far more breathing room. It’s not that Alicia can’t go high-energy, it’s just that when she does the gap between her and everyone else narrows, and who wants that?

Thankfully, the vast majority of the album sticks to far more laid back fare. When It’s All Over might confuse more radio-tunes listeners with its jazz time signatures and more experimental percussion, but it’s exactly the kind of genre-bending track that only someone with a few platinum albums in her catalog could convince a record label to include on a major album. On the downside, I don’t know if Girl on Fire has that one track that absolutely takes your breath away: see Un-Thinkable, Like You’ll Never See Me Again, You Don’t Know My Name, etc. Fire We Make comes close, it’s easily the album’s most sultry offering, but it still doesn’t quite knock me over. Maybe that’s the point of Girl on Fire though. Alicia’s at a point in her career where she no long feels the need to push us into powerful moments. Instead, she’s now content to let us come to her, confident that given enough time and enough listens we’ll grow to love the music as much as anything she’s done before. Frankly I don’t know if time will someday elevate Girl on Fire to something closer to classic status, but I’m going to enjoy finding out.

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted November 28, 2012
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