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There’s a new girl in town and her name is Alicia Keys. Sure, she arrived on the scene as a fully-formed artist with 2001‘s “Songs In A Minor,” but it’s clear on “Girl On Fire,” her first album in three years, that reinvention and rediscovery are the main courses on the Grammy winner’s menu.
“I found a brand new kind of free,” she sings on “Brand New Me,” her current single co-written with Emeli Sande. “It took a long, long road to get here. It took a brave, brave girl to try,” Keys states on the piano ballad.
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Keys has struggled a little commercially in recent years in the mainstream pop world: 2009’s “The Element Of Freedom” spawned no top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 (although she charted a number of R&B hits, including “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready),” which spent 12 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
But Keys has always been much more concerned about making an artistic statement than a commercial one and “Girl On Fire,” her fifth studio album, is no different. Musically, the songs veer from piano ballads to traditional R&B to experimental jazz. Check out the ‘50s be-bop drums behind “When It’s All Over” (and her son Egypt’s cute cameo at the end): this is an artist way more interested in following her muse than following the charts. However, to give the album a contemporary sheen, she enlists artist/producers like Jamie XX and Frank Ocean to update her sound and give her a more rhythmic punch than she’s had on previous efforts.
On the awkwardly titled “Limitedless,” she takes a page from Beyonce’s punchy, reggae-tinged military pop beat, and even borrows some “Countdown”-like tactics as she playfully enumerates the ways she loves. Similarly, “New Day,” a track released last summer that found her collaborating with husband Swizz Beats and Dr. Dre, showcases Key behind a staccato drum beat and a stutter-step lyric delivery that sounds more like Rihanna than the woman who brought you “If I Ain’t Got You.” It feels over labored. On “Listen To Your Heart,” she adopts a smooth jazz, Sade-like coolness.
And because in 2012 is seems as if no one hears an album unless Nicki Minaj is on it, the album includes the Inferno Version of “Girl On Fire.” The Jeff Bhasker-produced track opens with Minaj calling up the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. The kick-drum heavy chorus will already be familiar to anyone who has seen the ubiquitous American Express commercial that highlights the song. Minaj adds nothing here other than name value. The real star is Keys, who sings in at full-throttle throughout the song (which bears more than a passing resemblance to Lady Gaga's "The Edge of Glory" on the verses).
The album is at its most melodic and commercial when Keys steps away from the empowerment theme (though she does that as well as anyone) and sings straight ahead love songs with a softness and vulnerability that is tremendously appealing. The two champions here are “Fire We Make,” a sultry, sexy slow jam with Maxwell (and guitar work by Gary Clark Jr.) that sizzles on a low flame, and “Tears Always Win,” which sounds like it could have been on “Songs” or 2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys.” Keys delivers a soulful old-school R&B ballad about missing her man. It’s easy to imagine Amy Winehouse singing the track, which Keys co-wrote with Bruno Mars and the Smeezingtons. The lovely stripped down "Not Even The King," which features Keys quietly accompanying herself on piano, is another highlight.
“Girl On Fire’s” magnum opus is the 6:27 minute “101.” “It’s like a speeding train is coming, I know you’ve crashed it 100 times before,” she sings on “101,” clearly in anguish at being a man’s 101st attempt at getting it right, when all his previous efforts have failed. It’s a gutwrenching piano ballad, delivered beautifully by Keys, who sings largely in falsetto. The song goes into a long outro with Keys repeating “Hallelujah” and a heavy drum clash.
Keys has been referred to as a female Stevie Wonder: not only because they both play keyboards, but also for her seemingly fearless embrace of different musical styles and her command over her artistry. With “Girl On Fire,” her maturity has begun to catch up to her talent. As she sings on “Brand New Me,” “I’ll never be perfect, but at least now I’m brave.”
"Girl On Fire" is out Nov. 27.