By many standards, R&B songstress Alicia Keys seems to be an anomaly. With all the pressure upon artists in the R&B and pop markets to outdo one another in the over-the-top department—to say, wear and/or do more and more outrageous things—Keys has stayed quietly out of the fray, militantly refusing to shake her booty to sell her records, demanding that she be respected as an artist on the basis of her music alone.
Statistically, this should have put her in squarely in the mediocre department; instead, Keys has wound up in a class by herself—a standard by which other artists continue to measure themselves, and one of the most cited influences for up-and-comers. Before the age of 30, Keys had achieved a status of icon-hood known mostly to artists twice her age.
Four albums. Fourteen Grammy awards. There’s just no arguing with that.
It is upon this backdrop that Alicia Keys’ highly anticipated fifth album Girl On Fire is released. And while the sense of re-invention suggested by the opening song “Brand New Me” is a bit overstated (there’s no real groundbreaking shift to be found here), the consistent quality in Keys’ music makes it clear that no such re-invention was necessary.
Stylewise, Keys does venture a bit into new territory, with touches of electro, big beat, and even reggae spattered across the track list; yet all of these ventures are solidly anchored to the ground by her signature piano-vocal foundation, so you never lose sight of who is performing. Assisting in the genre-expansion are co-writers Emilé Sande (“101”, “Brand New Me,” “Not Even the King”), Frank Ocean (“One Thing”), Bruno Mars (“Tears Always Win”), and numerous others, while the production helm is visited at different times by the likes of Babyface, Dr. Dre and husband Swizz Beatz.
Thematically, you can divide Girl On Fire essentially into two halves. The first half of the album, culminating in the title track, deals primarily with the sense of positive empowerment with which Keys has long been identified, best expressed not only with the advance single “Girl On Fire,” but also with songs like “Brand New Me,” “Listen To Your Heart,” and the most-likely-to-be-a-party-anthem “New Day.” The second half deals almost exclusively with relationships, in good times (“Fire We Make”) and bad (“Tears Always Win”). But through it all, Keys consistently delivers with her own sense of style and class that even rubs off on others. (Let’s just say even Nicki Minaj’s rap on “Girl On Fire” is the classiest of her career, even if she is a bit obsessed with being possessed by the spirits of others.) And while the smoldering pillow-talk duet with Maxwell on “Fire We Make” could easily have descended into the tawdry—even that is tasteful.
The high point on the record (for me, at least)? “Not Even the King.” Take away the drum & bass, and leave Alicia Keys with a piano and a meaningful lyric, and you have a masterpiece, almost every time. This is Keys at her best.
While Girl On Fire admittedly does not mark any dramatic shifts for Alicia Keys as an artist, it is every bit as solid as anything she has put out before, giving her fans plenty of reason to add this one to their collections, andproving once again why she is where she is. There are all the other R&B artists out there (however talented)—and then there’s Alicia Keys.