Release Date: Nov 27, 2012
Record label: RCA
Genre(s): R&B, Adult Contemporary R&B, Contemporary R&B
Call Alicia Keys old-fashioned – she does begin her fifth studio album with an instrumental that flaunts her classical piano training. But she's an iconoclast, not an anachronist, spicing her flavorful midtempo songs and gusty inspirational ballads with odd chords, unexpected melodic twists, and rock and reggae flourishes. Even radio-ready tracks like "New Day," with its rugged, martial beat from Dr.
With a few carefully considered piano notes, “De Novo Adagio” reminds fans of soul diva Alicia Keys’ classical roots and sets the stage for an album that reaches beyond obvious anthems (“Empire State of Mind,” “Fallin’”) for a new urbanity, offering a variety of moods, notions, even introspection. Fear not, fans of ubiquity! Girl On Fire’s title track, especially the Inferno Version with rap from fashion-freak Nicki Minaj, throbs from radios everywhere, hook thrusting with the mindless sloganeering that eradicates hope for deeper meaning. Yet from the opening confession “It’s been a while.
Can a great soul singer survive at a time when pop music is so post-human, the word soul may be irrelevant? Now that even Taylor Swift is flirting with dubstep, Euro DJs and electronic production have largely eliminated the need for classically trained starlets to practice their arpeggios. So where does that leave Alicia Keys? Her latest album, Girl on Fire, finds her experimenting with younger, cooler collaborators — Emeli Sandé, Gary Clark Jr., Jamie xx — and trunk-rattling beats. (Check the title track’s Billy Squier stomp and the thundering drumline on ”New Day.”) But mostly this is her chance to prove that old-school ballads still matter; no electro-house breakdowns required.
Alicia Keys' fifth studio album opens the same way each one of her previous albums does: with a short, pensive piano piece. The quiet "De Novo Adagio" is meant to set the stage for the drama to come, but it handily accomplishes two other things as well. First, it reminds listeners that Keys is a classically trained musician, that she graduated from Professional Performing Arts School and studied at Columbia University.
Alicia Keys has released her fifth album Girl On Fire a little over a decade since she first came into recorded music prominence. The Hell’s Kitchen R&B Singer-Songwriter went cross-genre in 2001 thanks in due part to her ability to add musicality to R&B. It wasn’t anything new to the genre, but at the time it was something that wasn’t common.
After the release of The Element of Freedom, her fourth consecutive chart-topping and platinum studio release, Alicia Keys not only married Swizz Beatz and became a mother but stacked collaborations with Drake, Kanye West, Marsha Ambrosius, Jennifer Hudson, Emeli Sandé, and Miguel. The collaborative spirit continues all the way through Girl on Fire, an album sporting a list of around 20 co-composers and nearly a dozen co-producers. A small but significant portion of the album has Keys somewhere in the past, grappling with or sifting through a stifling relationship.
Alicia Keys opens Girl on Fire with a keyboard intro halfway between neo-soul and baroque, and then has the temerity to launch into a stripped-down, piano-trilling torch song called “Brand New Me.” Um, sounds astonishingly like the old one, Miss Alicia Please. Of course, it’s probably never been a better time for the lo-fi R&B chanteuse to stage a public rebirth, no matter how technically inaccurate it is. Adele’s juggernaut of unstoppable physical media sales and armloads of Grammy awards certainly must’ve looked familiar to Keys, and she admittedly arrives to her fifth album with a new husband, a new baby, and a new record label by her side.
"I'm not who I was before," sings Alicia Keys on the gorgeous Brand New Me, on her first album since 2009. The success of her Jay-Z collaboration Empire State of Mind seems to have encouraged the Grammy-collecting soul singer to try new styles, ranging from dark electro soul to a Shakira-type Latin/hip-hop banger. Everyone from Dr Dre to the xx's Jamie Smith has assisted with the makeover, but the core of the album still pairs Keys' big chops and beautiful piano playing, often with trademark lyrical platitudes about relationships and God.
“And it feels so good!” Alicia Keys initially exclaims over jazzy coats of instruments, courtesy of Jamie xx (who provides perhaps the most un-Alicia Keys-like platform for her signature stellar vocals), on “When It’s All Over”. The proclamation sounds like something you might hear the 31-year-old R&B queen say in an interview these days, like when she told NPR that her marriage to producer Swizz Beatz and the birth of their son Egypt (who adorably lends his toddler voice to the end of the song) helped her “arrive in her own space.” The singer is, in a word, happy. “It feels so good to sing it in this really high space, because it’s like I’m screaming at the top of my lungs,” Keys said of the album’s title track.
Alicia Keys's debut single, Fallin', was vital and heartbreaking, but as piano-and-pathos became her template, the music crept closer to commercially passable and critically whatever. Despite being an able, talented songwriter, she lacked adventurousness. Fifth album Girl On Fire is a stultifying, prescriptive rebirth record. In the opening minutes she sings about rediscovering bravery - for Keys, it's through the ungirlish pursuits of marriage and motherhood - and finding a "brand new kind of me." While there are nice nods to emerging songwriters Frank Ocean, Emeli Sandé and Stacy Barthe, there's nothing brave about enabling husband Swizz Beatz's increasingly calamitous production (New Day).
Emancipation narratives are all-pervasive in female pop. Often, though, a lot of hot air about "breaking free" or "finding oneself as a woman" doesn't mean the singer, after years of smiley servitude, has emasculated her handlers with pinking shears, torched the recording studio and hit the road with all the cash in the kitty and her tutu aflame. It just tends to signal a new stylist.
A new chapter begins for Keys on this confident, assured album. Daryl Easlea 2012 The Alicia Keys we find on Girl on Fire is much removed from how we left her on 2009’s The Element of Freedom, a rumination on the death of her grandmother and the break-up of a relationship. For the first album of her 30s, Keys is now married (to producer-rapper Swizz Beatz) and the proud mother of a young son.
Of all the pop genres, country has manned its borders the most ferociously, and that’s been to its detriment. A world with slow or no influx of new ideas is a dying one. But while you can police sounds, you can’t police people, and the genre’s embrace in recent years of the onetime rap-rock ….