Admittedly, at this point, my confusion with Keys' success has less to do with Keys and more to do with us. After eight years of nasal vocals that have earned nothing but multi-platinum success since day one, I can only assume that Alicia Keys is revered because she usually sings out with all the heart and sincerity of a great, she just lacks the skill to execute what she feels. Keys is like the American Idol singer who belts from the bottom of their James Brown soul, but looks surprised when told that their entire performance was a symphony of flats and sharps.
The distance between intention and execution is particularly apparent on The Element of Freedom with the would be power ballad "Love Is My Disease," a song sadly out of Keys vocal depth, and the Princesque dog whisperings of "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart." She does it again on "How It Feels To Fly," a song that could have soared in the right hands, particularly under the right pianist.
But, maybe that's the appeal, Keys is just like the rest of us shower singing, car belting Joes and Janes, only we won't sell the 350,000 copies that Keys' will ship in her first week for The Element of Freedom. It probably helps that in the pop vein, Keys can write her face off as she does on the light and lovely "That's How Strong My Love Is," the drum tight single "Doesn't Mean Anything" and the Jones Girls perfection of "The Bed." She is almost always good for a catchy anthem that radio will drill into the center of the earth, as they will with the Beyonce duet, "Put It In A Love Song." Keys is the opposite of the current trend of singers looking for a good songwriter; Keys is a great songwriter looking for a good singer.
To her credit, she tries to make up for these limitations by opening songs like "Wait Til You See My Smile" with some of her trademark key work and plenty of synthy strings that I suspect are intended to add drama and depth, but only highlight the unfinished feel of some of these spare productions. These cuts needed to cook a little longer in a mixing room.
As is true throughout her storied career with J Records, Keys does find that sweet spot where all is temporarily forgiven, like with the sequel to "Empire State of Mind" and "The Bed." These sprinkled moments are why I ever fall in love with Alicia Keys, but usually I'm out of love and giving her the side eye. The Element of Freedom only continues this view. Not Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson