Alicia Keys pushed herself to limit as she spread the word about her new album, ‘Girl on Fire’, but there has been little interest in the project beyond her dedicated fanbase. Yet, if casual listeners simply overlook her recent string of underwhelming performances, they would be pleasantly surprised to discover that the record is an impressive effort.
Boasting a track list of only 13 songs, ‘Girl on Fire’ follows Keys’ previous collection of elevator music, ‘The Element of Freedom’. Unlike its predecessor, however, this album is a lively mix of material by a diva who understands her core audience and is willing to go the extra mile to ensure that she continues to mature along with her fans.
Unlike what the ‘Girl on Fire’ title track and the lead promotional single, ‘New Day’, depict, this album is far from the drum-backed yelling session that many people, including yours truly, expected. Instead, the record is a delight for supports of real music.
‘Girl on Fire’ kicks off with the beautifully composed ‘De Novo Adagio’ introduction, which shows how Keys – born Alicia Cook – chose her stage name. Gliding across the keys of her piano, she proves that she is a master of the classical arts and takes us back to the era of a young Nina Simone. Indeed, without singing a single note, Keys delivers a truly powerful performance as she controls the ebb and flow of the song’s tempo.
‘De Novo Adagio’ moves seamlessly into the autobiographical ‘Brand New Me’ and sets the tone for the rest of ‘Girl on Fire’, which is cleverly sequenced throughout. However, don’t expect the album to sound like one long song that refuses to end. Rather, each tune represents a welcome change of pace that keeps the listener fully engaged.
That is perfectly exemplified by ‘When it’s All Over’. Laced with drums, bass, a dark piano melody and even a contribution by Keys’ son, this tune is a definite frontrunner for a radio release. In fact, it encourages a welcome repeat play for people when its followup, ‘Listen to Your Heart’, begins. Honestly, although the latter song is an easy listening piece, it is far too long and should have been tailored as a 90-second interlude.
“I imagine music video scenes of domestic violence, bad sex, and a cheating boyfriend, whose wife is waiting at home and her name rhymes with Rashonda…”
Another standout song for single treatment is the passionate ’Tears Always Win’. “If these walls could sing about everything they witnessed, it would be a sad, sad song and it would probably sound something like this…” – Keys sings as I imagine music video scenes of domestic violence, bad sex, and a cheating boyfriend, whose wife is waiting at home and her name rhymes with Rashonda…
Still, ‘Girl on Fire’ isn’t a perfect album made of sugar, spice and everything nice. Keys loses her balance on multiple occasions, such as the forgettable ‘One Thing’ and what she obviously thought would be a touching testimony, ‘That’s When I Knew’. The second song tells the story of how she fell in love with her husband, Swizz Beatz, but it amounts to nothing more than a gross public display of affection.
By now I know you’re asking yourself, “why isn’t Trent mentioning Keys’ singing on this album? Did he get bribed to avoid writing about it?” Unfortunately for Keys, I didn’t receive any such PayPal transaction and now it’s time for me to address the the obvious.
Keys’ once sweet, rich voice has become a tattered and worn instrument that has completely lost its elasticity. It is a painful experience to hear her build to the climax of a song as phenomenal as ’101′ and literally croak the word “hallelujah” as she calls on a higher power who clearly hasn’t blessed her vocal cords in many years.
Langston Hughes once asked, “what happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Many of us still don’t know the answers to those questions but all I can hope is that it doesn’t explode like Keys’ throat at the turn of a high note. Maybe that’s why she chose the title ‘Girl on Fire’ for her album.
Rounding out ‘Girl on Fire’ are a pair of tracks at the opposite ends of a spectrum. The first is the brilliant ‘Not Even a King’, which is wonderfully performed by Keys, and the second is the horrendous attempt at Reggae, ‘Limitedless’. Don’t ask me to fully describe the latter because that explanation will involve several curse words regarding Keys’ terrible vocal performance and styling that is more of a mockery of the Reggae genre than anything else.
So, is ‘Girl on Fire’ worth buying or will it only replace the lump of coal in your worst enemy’s Christmas stocking? Honestly, despite a few missteps, this album is a solid body of work that should satisfy even the pickiest of R&B fans. Keys is vocally handicapped but she compensates for her weakness with generally great music that connects to tastes of her longtime supporters. If that doesn’t convince you then at least you can buy it to boost yourself esteem as you out-sing her in the car on your way home from work.
Standout tracks: ‘Fire We Make (Ft. Maxwell)’, ‘’De Novo Adagio’, ‘101’ and ‘Tears Always Win’
Weakest track: ‘Limitedless’
Possible singles: ‘Tears Always Win’ and ‘When it’s All Over’
The Lava Lizard Rating: 3.5/5 Stars