Alicia Keys may not be in the top 10 lists of the richest contemporary R&B singers like her peers Beyoncé or Rihanna, but she has managed to create a powerful 11-year music career with her famous contralto voice range.
Unlike her peers, Keys believes in creating music, touring and then moving away from the public eye before releasing new albums and resurfacing back into the world. It is not surprising, then, that Keys is just releasing her fifth studio album, “Girl on Fire,” after the platinum-selling “The Element of Freedom” (2009).
Having sold over 25 million albums worldwide and with 11 Grammys safely tucked under her belt, Keys has reached a position in her career where she couldn’t care less of what the critics say, as long as her fans enjoy her music. “Girl on Fire” is definitely an ode to her worldwide fan base but falls short; it has a few sparks, but is definitely not on fire.
“Girl on Fire” opens with “De Novo Adagio,” literally translating to “A New Slow-Paced Piece,” with Keys paying homage to the love she has for the piano. The ballad “Brand New Me,” co-written by rising Scottish singer Emile Sande, sums up the new direction she wants for the album with, “I’m not waiting for your OK / I’ll never be perfect / But at least now I’m brave,” accompanied by a backing string section and piano that are synonymous to Key’s powerful voice.
The album takes a step back with the next two songs, “When It’s All Over” and “Listen to Your Heart,” in that Keys recycles her love for electronic-bluesy and ’90s-influenced R&B, but the former ends up being all over the place while the latter falls into the R&B stereotype of tacky love songs.
Luckily, the Dr. Dre and Swizz Beats-produced “New Day,” heavily rooted in hip-hop with military drum beats, backing vocals and scratches, takes Keys to mainstream upbeat dance music and removes the sour taste.
The first single of the album, “Girl on Fire (Inferno Version),” sits tightly in the middle of the track list opening with Nicki Minaj as a feature artist and does what Keys knows best: a perfect balance of vocals and instruments empowering girls through her lyrics, “Oh, she got both feet on the ground / And she’s burning it down / Oh, she got her head in the clouds / And she’s not backing down.” This is one of those songs that will be sung countless times in karaoke, so get ready to hear this one a million times at best.
“Fire We Make” and “Tears Always Win” are a trip back to her R&B roots, with sultry singing voices, claps, electric guitars, bass and a duet with Maxwell in “Fire We Make,” and the heartache of a broken relationship in “Tears Always Win.” “One Thing,” co-written with Frank Ocean, is a heartfelt ballad about lost love — a running theme through most of Keys albums.
“That’s When I Knew” and “Limitless” are rudderless songs that just increase the messiness of “Girl on Fire.”
“Not Even the King” and “101,” co-written again with Sande, are like those pieces of chocolate you thought you had finished but are eventually really glad upon finding them. Both of them are piano and vocally-driven love songs with a lot of lyrical imagery.
With “Girl on Fire,” Keys teases us with a new direction that she plans to take, but she fails to carry it through and ends up with a messy album that has a few perks.
Final Rating: 3/5