Since Alicia Keys released her last album, the quite solid Element of Freedom, the singer/songwriter underwent some pretty serious life changes. Most importantly, she married rap and R&B producer Swizz Beatz, and the two became parents to a son named Egypt. Things like marriage and childbirth tend to spark creativity. With Keys’ most recent music showing signs of living up to the potential she had at the outset of her career but hadn’t quite lived up to in the years since, I was pretty excited for her new album, Girl On Fire.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been.
Keys’ fifth studio album isn’t horrible. However, it isn’t great. For all the proclamations of a rebirth (hey, she even calls the first song on the album “Brand New Me,” and labels another track “New Day”-talk about beating a dead horse,) Fire doesn’t sound much different from Keys’ four other albums. Perhaps most damning is the fact that Keys remains a profoundly awkward lyricist-barely ever rising above trite Oprah-isms. Even the presence of a veritable A-team of co-writers can’t disguise the fact that, despite the fact that Keys obviously aspires to be “deep,” she just ain’t there yet.
What I liked most about The Element of Freedom was the sense of longing that permeated many of the tracks. If you listen to “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” or “Un-Thinkable” or “Distance & Time,” it’s pretty obvious that Alicia put her heart and soul into her performance of those songs. It’s hard not to imagine that the situation she was in at the time (and I’m not gonna rehash the whole A. Keys/Swizz/Mashonda love triangle here-go to Media Takeout for that) bled into her vocals. For the first time, I consistently felt Alicia Keys. Feeling herself was never much of a problem-her confidence and her skill has always outweighed her soul, but these songs struck an emotional chord in addition to just sounding good.
That same soul isn’t evident very often on Girl On Fire. How else can you explain the fact that she wrote songs with absolute knockout lyricists like John Legend, Bruno Mars and Frank Ocean and the album doesn’t resonate the way albums by any of those three men would individually? That said, the album’s best tracks are the co-writes. “When It’s All Over” (co-written by Legend) is one of the more aurally interesting tracks, with an ambient soundscape provided by Jamie XX. The classic-soul styled “Tears Always Win” (co-written by Mars) is another winner, sounding like a rawer version of an older Keys hit, “If I Ain’t Got You.”
As good as those two songs are, they don’t totally negate the lyrical atrocities committed in the tepid title track or “New Day,” both of which waste head-nodding beats. The reggae-styled “Limitedless” is just plain awkward. I respect Alicia’s diversity, but not every lane is made for everyone. The biggest disappointment on Girl on Fire, however, is “The Fire We Make,” a duet with Maxwell that had the potential to be awesome and provide the album with some legitimate heat. The song, unfortunately, never rises above a mild simmer. Maxwell sounds almost like he’s phoning it in (although a half-assed Maxwell still sounds sexier than just about any other male R&B singer today.) The guitar solo at the track’s end is more stimulating than either of the vocalists are!
In the end, I’m disappointed. Not necessarily because Girl On Fire is a bad album, per se. I don’t regret my purchase (and yes, I plunked down 10 bucks for this baby on CD.) I guess I was just the victim of some high expectations set by Keys’ last record. As it turns out, that may have been the aberration. I will say that longing suits her art way more than cozy domesticity does.