Alicia Keys Runs Free

She can belt her heart out, and play the piano with admirable proficiency, but can Alicia Keys deliver a mind-blowing album? The answer is: close, but not close enough.

Alicia Keys begins “The Element of Freedom” with a quote by Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Expressing the need for independence and the beauty of self-discovery, Keys opens up on her new album about the pains of insecurity brought on by loneliness, and the hope of strength through liberation.

On this fourth studio album, Keys pushed herself to explore the freedom of new production styles and even the use of instruments considered unconventional for R&B music; for example, the Moog synths. However, most of the songs on her new album fall short of what most would expect from the frequent chart-topper.

Now, this is not to say that all the songs on the album are unworthy of the repeat button. The album starts off strong with “Doesn’t Mean Anything” and “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” two of the best songs on the album. These two back-to-back tracks highlight the versatility of Keys’ vocal abilities. Namely on “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” Keys’ sultry, smoky voice is reminiscent of Mariah Carey circa 1993 with her mind-blowing single “Hero.” Coupled with a stringent beat and Keys’ whispering plea, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” serves as a nice break from her usual piano ballads.

Halfway into the album, Keys continues the strong streak with “Un-thinkable,” featuring Canadian artist Drake, and “Love is My Disease.” Moving away from predictable R&B rhythms, “Love is My Disease” has a prominent reggae undertone contrasting the tormented cry of Keys as she bellows, “I thought love would be my cure, but now it’s my disease.”

But as strong as it started, “Freedom” starts to fall flat as most songs begin to lose originality and sound like every other song Keys has written before. Songs like “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” “How It Feels to Fly” and “Distance and Time” are almost instantly forgotten after being heard.

I was hoping that the track featuring Beyoncé would serve as a high point for the album, but as soon as the song began, the suspicious similarities between Keys’ “Put it in a Love Song” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” served only to disappoint. The songs practically have the same beat and even have the identical messages, which are just worded differently. Basically, what these two divas are saying is if you love your girl, then you should either “put it in a love song” or “put a ring on it” – or else they’ll leave you.

However, Keys ends the album on a strong note with the surprising stripped down version of “Empire State of Mind” Admittedly, I am a fan of the original version by Jay-Z, but Keys’ rendition brings the song to a whole new level. Rather, in Jay-Z’s radio hit version, he seems to only be rapping about the happenings of the bustling city; whereas, Keys genuinely pays homage to “the concrete jungle where dreams are made of” by singing about the flourishing possibilities of hope, and the realization of dreams that transpire from the busy metropolis of New York City.

There are many highlights to “The Element of Freedom,” but it constantly falls short as outstanding tracks become overwhelmed by mediocre tracks that seem to dominate the album. Alicia Keys came so close to blossoming, but unfortunately, she still seems tightly packed in her bud.