Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Album Review: 'Girl on Fire' (Grade: B-)

Any collection of music associated with Alicia Keys has proven to be more than beneficial for R&B, and for music in general. As a subtle warning leading up to the release of 'Girl on Fire', Keys took to her website to explain what fans could expect from her fifth studio album. She vowed to deliver a "new me" and equated herself to a lion locked up in a cage. Heavy stuff, but it somehow pieces together after hearing what Rolling Stones called, "her catchiest and subtlest album yet--and one of the best R&B records of 2012". I'm not sure "catchy" is what traditional Alicia Keys fans were looking for, certainly not this one. Though her use of modern production and sound is refreshing, largely due to contribution from husband hit maker Swizz Beatz, and though her greatness is still omnipresent, I still can't help but think that Alicia Keys has taken a step away from her element (as in 'Element of Freedom') with 'Girl on Fire'.

The first four songs don't veer off much from the "old" Alicia Keys. "De Novo Adagio" begins the album in elegant fashion with a 79-second piano solo that reminds us of her skilled classical training. "Brand New Me" is the coming out party for this new persona. "Don't be mad, it's just a brand new kind of me". The song progresses from a lone piano to a climax with blaring drums, but it's a song that Keys could sing gracefully while sitting at the piano, where she thrives. "When It's All Over" is produced by Jamie xx, also responsible for Drake and Rihanna's record "Take Care". The first sighting of a newer sound, one of the more notable songs on the album starts with a funky jazz tone and evolves into a 90's nightclub dance track. Keys' new approach works masterfully here as she expresses gratitude for having been able to love in this lifetime. "Listen To Your Heart" teams Keys up with Rodney Jerkins for a smooth-it-out 70's feel, rounding out the first third of 'Girl on Fire' in a way that only reminds you of the Alicia Keys we've come to know and love over the years.

Alicia Keys sang "Girl on Fire" at this year's MTV VMA's in September.

The second half of 'Girl on Fire' is a bit more coherent about this "new" Alicia Keys we were meant to encounter. "New Day" and "Girl on Fire" were released as singles prior to the album's release, and both were instantly accepted commercially. Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre made sure "New Day" would be a banger production-wise, just add a catchy hook from Keys and you've got yourself a legitimate Alicia Keys club song (typing that felt a bit unorthodox). "Girl on Fire" is the album declaration with a hip-hop undertone enhanced by an appropriate verse from Nicki Minaj. According to the MTV Video Music Awards back in September, Keys would rather attempt to sing the more upbeat, vocally straining song while playing the piano, standing up, and dancing all at the same time. Again, not necessarily where she has been known to thrive. Such ambition on her part took away from the song's credibility. Keys' strength has always been executing her songs for a live audience. For the first time, I heard an Alicia Keys that was screaming, not singing, an unlikely deficiency that could have never been accused of her in the past. Why does this matter? It has everything to do with her moving away from her most genuine element.

What holds 'Girl on Fire' afloat is simply the greatness of Alicia Keys. She reverts back to what I consider to be her element in spurts. "Fire We Make" is accompanied by the falsettos of Maxwell for a duet that results in a typical neo-soul love song. "Tears Always Win" is the missing-my-baby ballad with some blues influence, "These lips are missing you, cause these lips ain't kissing you". Although "Not Even The King" forces Keys back into her element, the beauty of the message isn't particularly glaring at first listen. There isn't much fire in the song, so to speak. "That's When I Knew" puts an acoustic guitar behind Keys that feels all but natural, while "Limitedless" not only makes up a word but strays furthest from Keys' element with a reggae-soul cut that is too easily skipped over.

"One Thing" and "101" salvage what's left of vintage Alicia Keys. Co-written by Frank Ocean, Keys sings about "This one thing that was made for us, chasing us, saving us", a mournful love song that represents where she truly thrives with heartfelt ballads. The same could be said of "101" until the final two minutes, when an explosion of drums emerges with a slue of powerful hallelujah's from Keys, which concludes the album in a most uplifting tone. 'Girl on Fire' is an album worthy of praise for it's edginess and modern pizazz. This experimental phase of Alicia Keys' career could have quickly undermined her previous masterpieces, but her songwriting ability and vocal prowess do enough to make this one of the more dynamic R&B albums of the year.

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