Alicia Keys has always presented herself with a level of maturity far beyond her age. But in the three years since her last album, the lukewarm “The Element of Freedom,” she’s grown up at the most basic levels – by getting married (to rapper/producer Swizz Beatz) and having a son (Egypt, now 2).
Those two major life changes obviously had an effect on her outlook and, consequently, her songwriting, which helps make her fifth album, “Girl on Fire,” a confident rainbow of sounds.
The album is bookended by Keys’ lovely piano playing – though it’s ushered in like a lamb and goes out like a gospel-tinged lion – and it’s immediately apparent that marriage and motherhood haven’t diluted her strong-woman stance.
“I’ve taken one too many excuses, one too many lies,” she sings on the opening “Brand New Me,” her voice frequently falling into that rasp that pops up when she leans into a lyric. It’s an affectation that could be annoying, but with Keys, it sounds so natural that it’s instead alluring.
While “Brand New Me” is a signature Keys piano ballad, it segues into the invigorating jazzy fusion of “When It’s All Over,” which includes a cameo from her toddler, Egypt, at song’s end.
There isn’t a clunker among these 13 tracks – though “Limitedless,” which initially sounds like a tangle of a tune until Keys navigates her way out of the clumsy reggae jam, comes close – and Keys soars throughout, whether cooing seductively on “Listen to Your Heart” or following the rolling snare drums of “New Day.”
That song, produced by her husband and Dr. Dre, is a sonically adventurous detour for Keys, but its rote chorus makes it indistinguishable from anything on the radio right now – which means it will probably be a huge hit.
“Fire We Make,” her duet with Maxwell, is lyrically cliché-ridden (“like a moth to a flame I can’t stay away”), but the pair sounds sumptuous together. And with sparse, graceful guitar work from Gary Clark Jr., the song has the feel of a vintage soul tune.
“Not Even the King” is another standout, as Keys demonstrates how she’s one of the few contemporary artists who can flourish with minimal accompaniment. Backed only by her piano, Keys’ breathy vocals are piercing and natural.
But again, it’s that rasp, also heard on “Tears Always Win,” that elevates Keys from pretty-voiced singer to genuine-emotion crooner. The song, featuring a writing assist from Bruno Mars, might be a typical “I miss my guy” tearjerker, but Keys injects it with an Amy Winehouse-level of heartache, proving again how she really is all grown up.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene