I’ve read a lot of reviews of Alicia Keys’ new album The Element of Freedom, and I noticed that all the negative reviews had something in common: the writers apparently have a barren wasteland where their soul should be. Now I’m not going to name names (a.k.a. the legal department has advised me not to), but these writers have gone so deep into their critical analysis that they seem to have forgotten why we listen to music in the first place—to feel something.
Sad, angry, joyous, lustful, great music allows us to simultaneously escape and draw deeper into ourselves, to tap into emotions that were previously walled off. Over the last decade no artist has made us feel more, and more strongly, than Alicia Keys, and if you can listen to all of The Element of Freedom and not be moved, not even a little, then you’re either a robot sent from the future to destroy mankind or a jaded music writer. It’s one or the other.
That doesn’t mean that The Element of Freedom is perfect. The album, Keys' fourth, was written during a time of intense personal struggle for the New York City songstress, and her pain is evident throughout Freedom. Almost completely lacking in some of the more upbeat cuts that buoyed her last album As I Am ("Teenage Love Affair," for example), Freedom is often little more than Keys, a piano, some minimal backing, and her extraordinary voice, making the album the least immediately accessible of her career. This is an album that does not immediately grab you. Instead, it requires some patience, demands the listener put in some work too, but those who are willing to follow Keys’ will find their effort well rewarded.
Regular readers know that I have a certain, let’s say “affinity” for Ms. Keys, so if public displays of affection make you uncomfortable I suggest you skip to the next paragraph. "Unthinkable (I’m Ready)"…is…one of the most…..beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. Consisting of little more than a handful of piano chords and minimal percussion, "Unthinkable" is an extraordinary example of Keys’ power to make us truly feel. Turn the lights low, pull someone you love close, turn on this song and see what happens. No album that contains "Unthinkable" could possibly be mediocre, so [censored] over at [censored] Magazine can get the f*k out of here with that “lack of inspiration” bulls**t. Damn, there go those lawyers again.
My personal beef aside, I can admit that the lack of a true smash hit, the kind of song an entire country can’t get enough of (basically a track like "Empire State of Mind") does keep Freedom from being quite as good as As I Am. Keys’ latest single "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," an ‘80s tinged ballad complete with synths and drum machine percussion, is enjoyable but ultimately fails to truly connect, and while I’m sure she intended "Doesn’t Mean Anything" to be another "Like You'll Never See Me Again," it just doesn’t have the same appeal. The only true stumble on Freedom is her ill-conceived duet with Beyonce, "Put It In a Love Song," which could have been amazing if they hadn’t inexplicably tried to revive Destiny’s Child’s sound. Several songs on the album may not be instant classics, but this is the only one that shows a real lack of judgment.
With that said, there’s plenty of material on The Element of Freedom to melt even the iciest of hearts. Just take "This Bed," an obviously Prince influenced track that’s certainly not what we’re used to hearing from Keys’, who here abandons her usually wide-ranging vocals to go almost completely falsetto. The only way to avoid liking "This Bed" is if you’re actively trying not to. The same can be said of "Distance and Time," a slowly unwinding track that Alicia absolutely owns, and "Like The Sea," a track which at first blush may come off as a little corny, but by the time the chorus hits you’re absolutely enthralled with (there’s that patience I was speaking of). Throw in the experimental "Love Is Blind" and, of course, "Empire State of Mind II (Broken Down)" and you’ve got an album that hits far more than it misses.
So how good is The Element of Freedom? It’s certainly not her best, but complaining about it is like complaining about Michelangelo’s Statue of David because it’s not the Sistine Chapel (thanks, college art history class). If you want an artist who makes you feel, you want Alicia Keys, and you want The Element of Freedom. Sometimes it really is that simple.