Thanks to those estrogen-fueled anthems, a soaring soprano and that around-the-way attractiveness and accessibility, Alicia Keys has firmly entrenched herself as a force to be reckoned with as far as longevity and artistic flair. For three consecutive releases, the native New Yorker resisted the temptation to sex it up and dumb it down, churning out wrenching ballads and saucy cuts that dared listeners to pump their fists, rock their necks or drop-kick losers in their circle to step lively into the next phase.
But cracks began to appear within Alicia’s impeccable image both personally and professionally when her fourth chart-topping CD, The Element of Freedom, found its momentum stalled by her gossip blog magnet of a courtship with the producer of her “Put It In A Love Song” track, the then-married Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean (and the public chastising by his relectant soon-to-be ex, Mashonda). The unseemliness of the new union called Ms. Keys’ personal and professional integrity into question: what was going on, many wondered, when a woman who commanded women to respect each other (“A Woman’s Worth,” “Karma,” “Superwoman”) seemed to conveniently overlook those mantras when it came time to apply them in her own life?
Perhaps, in an effort to rebrand herself, Ms. Keys has re-configured her image (sleek, shorn hair and a hot mama wardrobe/attitude) and, in contrast to …Freedom's airier and more earnest feel, positioned Girl On Fire as an “I am woman, hear me roar” manifesto expoundnig on her hard-won happiness as she explores life after matrimony and motherhood.
Does it succeed? Yes and no. In its brief and chaotic run (there are six less tracks than on her previous release), Alcia’s trademark introspection and ingenuity are still discernable throughout, but all of the extra collaborators (half a dozen co-producers and a football team’s worth of co-composers), obviously added to provide a fresh sheen to her signature sound, only succeed in detracting from its overall focus. Or, even worse, they attempt to retro-fit Ms. Keys into grooves never quite suited to her in the first place.
Among the mash-ups that do work are the brash Swizz and Dr. Dre creation, “New Day,” and the girl-becomes-goddess battle cry title track, which would’ve worked just fine without the Nicki Minaj cameo, thank you very much (interesting? Yes. Essential? No.).
Expectedly, Ms. Keys shines the brightest when uncluttered by the bombast and allowed to unfurl completely, an example of that demonstrated in the awe-inspiring emergence heard in “Brand New Me”: “If I talk a little louder, speak up when you’re wrong/if I walk a little taller, I've been under you too long. If you notice that I'm different, don't take it personally/don't be mad, it's just a brand new kind of me." "Tears Always Win," which will transplant long-time AK follwers to those heady Diary days, is a noble and nostalgic number featuring lyrics by Bruno Mars, and Alicia goes toe-to-toe with a smoldering Maxwell on the throbbing "Fire We Make," a duet describing their mutual longing so vividly that listeners might dive into a cold shower afterwards. Another gem is "That's When I Knew," a collage of images and emotions spelled out to define the electrifying instant that Ms. Keys confesses to losing her heart:"Right there, in the middle of a conversation/it wasn't anything special you said, it was just there. Right then, I didn't time to even have time to overthink it/I loved you and all of a sudden, I was all in."
As for the rest of the CD, it's not what remains that's the problem; it's what's missing. Aside from the raggae-splashed "Limitedless," "New Day" and the title track, the pacing hovers between languid and lethargic (except from the slow-burning-simper-turned-temper-tantrum "101"). Alicia's stirring vocals aren't enough to lift "When It's Over" and "Not Even The King" from their middle-of-the-road qualities, and the more one listens to ....Fire, the more you realize how little of it that element actually exists, as if she purposefully shied away from being too forceful and too raw to deflect from the taint of scandal that Mashondagate created; so she loses part of what drew in her followers to begin with.
As any woman knows, melding the personal and the professional, expecially when you add "Mrs" and "Mommy" to the list, is a daunting task that takes skill and practice to achieve. It's not the ability that's diminished as far as Ms. Keys' new project is concerned; it's the direction in which it's needlessly scattered. Less chefs in the kitchen would've allowed her to discover how overdone the resulting dish actually is, and here's hoping that next time, Alicia uses less hands to season up the pot so we can enjoy the Fiery uniqueness that we've come to expect from her over the years. Recommended.
By Melody Charles