By Hung Nguyen, Staff Writer for The Current
Alicia Keys’ anticipated new release, Girl on Fire, begins with two songs that are so heart-wrenchingly sincere and cathartic that she may set the bar too high for the rest of album. The Grammy-winning soul princess starts strong with “Brand New Me,” a minimal ballad using only Keys’ vocals and piano. The song will remind fans of her early career successes, when they first fell in love with her. Keys cannot hit the upper octaves but this is a minor complaint. Her unique voice, a rich, raspy contralto, is what drew audiences to her in the first place. Her power comes from the emotional depth in her voice’s texture, not its range. “Brand New Me” also summarizes the theme of the album: that Keys is equal parts mother, wife, and artist.
In “When It’s All Over,” Keys describes her satisfaction with her new life. The emotion and meaning of every word is driven home. The song also features young Egypt, Keys’ two-year-old son, and hip hop producer Swizz Beatz.
The next few songs, unfortunately, do not reach the high expectations set in Girl on Fire’s early moments. In “New Day”, Keys’ vocals are overwhelmed by percussion, a production decision made even more irritating by the cacophony of slashed vocals which closes the track. “Limitedless” is fun, but its lyrics lack depth and its upbeat tempo undermines Keys’ vocals. In “Listen to Your Heart,” the clichéd sentiment contained in the title quickly becomes trite, thwarting its potential for empowerment and inspiration.
Girl on Fire is best when Keys is in the soulful, jazz-infused R&B territory she made her name on. Romance is central to the album. “Not Even the King” is an acceptable rewrite of “If I Ain’t Got You.” “That’s When I Knew” is a clear, multidimensional picture of a moment of clarity in love. The “heat” in love is captured in “Fire We Make,” which features falsetto verses from modern R&B icon Maxwell. “Tears Always Win” describes the longing of being apart from love, while “One Thing” reflects on love lost. These tracks are consistent with the albums’ theme, showing a matured lover, a “brand new” woman who has gained experience since her first reflections on love years ago.
“Girl on Fire,” the hip-hop/R&B hit single featuring Nicki Minaj that tortured fans with anticipation for this album, shows Keys’ ability to tackle a vocal challenge. The plain, repetitive melodies of the song forces Keys to be creative with her vocalizations for its rotating phrase “this girl is on fire.” Despite its simplicity, the song reaches an engaging and emotional climax. Its lyrics may be vague, but the message is not lost on listeners: Keys feels on top of the world, on fire.
“101,” a piano ballad bursting with emotion, concludes the album. It reminds listeners that the fire burning inside Alicia Keys will burn long after the album is over.
Girl on Fire is an album committed to a common theme of accomplishment and optimism. The album, unfortunately, interferes with much of Alicia Keys’ signature sound. It is littered with songs that do not really go anywhere, and fail to showcase Keys’ strengths. Beyond these missteps, Girl on Fire is a good release from an artist who has matured a great deal since her introduction to the R&B world.
© The Current