Alicia Keys arrived on the music scene with a certain amount of weight and expectation. She’d been dropped by Columbia and Arista and picked up Clive Davis’s then-nascent J Records. For those who were there for her unveiling at Davis’s pre-Grammy party in the early 2000s, he introduced her with so much expectation and gravitas (as only Davis can) that it seemed like the fate of the music world rested on her slender shoulders. It’s as if she has to be Aretha Franklin, Carole King and Stevie Wonder all rolled into one.
And Keys has delivered: In her relatively short career, she has won 12 Grammys and is seen as A Very Serious Artist, who manages to straddle commercial viability and connect with the mainstream.
On “The Element of Freedom,” her fourth studio album, Keys continues to develop her piano-based oeuvre that blends pop, R&B and a sense of importance. This is further enforced by the fact that the set opens with a spoken-word intro. This usually means the artist feels the need to make a pronouncement prefacing the music to let us all know something big is about to happen and attention must be paid.Hear it here.
Much of “Freedom” is awash in a heavy production that sounds straight from the ‘80s (this much be coming back, we’ve noticed it a lot of albums lately). There are heavy kick drums, lots of echo and, a certain mid-tempo rock feel: (think Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and you get the drift). Keys uses that on a number of tunes, including “Love is Blind” and the irresistible “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart.” It also works to strong effect on “Wait Till You See My Smile,” about having the last word to your naysayers, even though the production threatens to overshadow her vocals.
First single, “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” is the kind of mid-tempo, “if I don’t have you” kind of song that Keys can write in her sleep by now (and, in fact, this sounds like about four previous Keys hits), but is redeemed by her open, plaintive delivery. A logical single candidate is the mesmerizing “Unthinkable,” featuring Drake (although the handclaps should get billing over Drake as they’re much more present than he is).
There’s the feeling that Keys puts way too much pressure on herself to deliver a masterpiece every time. That’s a great goal, but sometimes you wish she’s just have fun with a track. And lo and behold she does with “Put It in a Love Song,” a duet with Beyonce (whose sum is much lesser than its two parts. How could it be otherwise), but is fun and joyous nonetheless. The set also includes "Empire State of Mind (Part ll)" with Jay Z, a follow-up to their fabulously successful "Empire State of Mind" from his album, "The Blueprint 3."
The subject matter is love, love and more love. Sometimes, it’s unconditional, such as on “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” a beautiful piano-driven ballad where she compares the durability of her love to a “ship in a storm” or a “mountain standing tall.” Then there’s love as a drug—and not a good one at that. On “Love is a Disease,” she finds that the very thing she counted on to be her cure ultimately makes her sicker. Melodically, it’s a fairly plodding track, but when she sings that when her lover leaves, “if feels like my whole world goes with you,” you believe her every word. Rarely has she sounded so vulnerable. Things get no better for our heroine on “Like the Sea,” where she compared falling in love to drowning.
But ultimately for Keys, love is epic. On “Distance and Time,” Keys gets her Diane Warren on and delivers a power ballad that would be perfect as the end title song for an old-school blockbuster like “Pearl Harbor.” It has that massive, take-over-the-world feel.
“Freedom” could use a few more up-tempo tracks, but Keys shows with this set that for her— and for most of us— love makes the world go round or brings it to a complete halt.