Alicia Keys returns after a three-year hiatus with the November 27, 2012 release of Girl On Fire via RCA Records. Keys was formerly signed to J Records, which became part of RCA. Girl On Fire follows-up 2009’s platinum-certified The Element Of Freedom, Keys’s sole effort to fail to bow at no. 1 on the Billboard Albums chart (bowed at no. 2 with 417,000 copies sold). The Element Of Freedom was generally considered a solid album, if too subtle and ‘sleepy’ at times. That effort failed to sport a top ten Billboard Hot 100 single, something her first trio of studio albums did. It’s most notable commercial triumph came from an exceptional Drake co-write, “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” which peaked at no. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100. Similar to The Element of Freedom, Girl On Fire doesn’t look like it will necessarily sport a top ten single, but seems to have more radio viability and traction than its predecessor.
Girl On Fire does many things more alluring than The Element Of Freedom. Keys fails to write one song, co-
writing all songs, something she hasn’t previously done. The drums pound much harder than previous efforts, particularly on the bombastic “New Day.” Additionally, Keys extends the collaboration beyond songwriting to guest artists including Nicki Minaj (rapping), Maxwell (duets with Keys), Gary Clark, Jr. (guitar) and Bruno Mars (provides backing vocals). Add to that list of changes a much more experimental Keys, and you have easily Keys’s most forward-thinking album. It does not outdo her ‘classics’ 2001’s Songs in A Minor or 2003’s album of the year nominated The Diary of Alicia Keys, but it delivers one of 2012’s most captivating R&B efforts, if for nothing else than to see Keys alter her formula.
“De Novo Adagio (Intro)” gives Alicia Keys her obligatory solo piano intro. While Keys generally changes the formula on Girl On Fire, she doesn’t concede her classical piano solo. No harm, no foul, right?
“Brand New Me” is the first surprise. Given a history of opening the album ‘energetically’ with numbers the likes of “Karma” and even “Love Is Blind” from The Element of Freedom, Keys opts for a conservative, singer/songwriter R&B cut co-written with Emeli Sandé. Keys’s vocal performance is generally relaxed and the production rather reserved with piano, synthetic pad, and minimalist drum programming constituting the majority of the cut. Towards the end, Keys’s vocals soar achieving a great amount of power. After the great crescendo wanes back down, Keys closes the thoughtful ballad in her own signature fashion, characterized by those ‘Keys’ vocal nuances. Surprising “Brand New Me” is as an opener, successive listeners truly unveil the magic of ballad.
“When It’s All Over” instantly contrasts “Brand New Me,” opening with pummeling drums. Co-written by
Keys and John Legend (and Stacy Barthe), “When It’s All Over” possesses nuances of both the ‘old’ and ‘new’ soul. The modern elements mark the ‘forward thinking’ Keys making “When It’s All Over” different from previous songs released by the chanteuse. “When they lay me down, put y soul to rest,” Keys sings on the chorus,”when the ask me how I spent my life, at least I got to love you, when it’s all said and done, when it’s over…” Like the opener, “When It’s All Over” may take an additional listen or two to completely appreciate it to its fullest. Oh, and
let’s not leave out Baby Egypt’s guest appearance at the end. 🙂
“Listen To Your Heart” finds Keys and John Legend co-writing once more with production contributed by Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. The cut again balances the modern with a hint of soul and neo-soul sensibility, yielding sound, if somewhat conservative production from Jerkins. Keys’s approach is very cool, calm, and collected; despite this, this approach carries plenty of weight here. “Listen to your heart, why don’t you listen to your heart… you know what to do when it comes for you…,” she sings, nothing short of classy.
“New Day” shocks featuring the production combination of Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre. Originally released
as a buzz track, “New Day” was the kind of cut that you say ‘eh’ and move on. Hearing it again, while it is manic and gimmicky, it does provide an energetic contrast for Keys. “Party people say, party people say, ay/it’s a new day, it’s a new day,” Keys sings enthusiastically on the hook . It may not supersede the balladry of “Brand New Me” or the fusion of classic/modern forces of “When It’s All Over” or “Listen To Your Heart,” but it is another interesting component of Girl On Fire.
“Girl On Fire (Inferno Version)” follows, opening with Nicki Minaj‘s intro rap: “Spirit of Marilyn callin’ me, audibly/bawlin’ she said that she would never leave, continued to torture me…,” etc. The placement of “Girl On Fire” may be surprise some considering it would seem a ‘shoe-in’ opener. Despite this initial assumption, its placement is superb following the manic momentum established by “New Day.” The song itself has been both hailed and scrutinized alike, whether it be its 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…”) or that Keys seems to ‘overreach’ ever so slightly on the chorus (“this girl is on fire…”). Ultimately, the results are somewhere between the two extremes. “Girl On Fire” is a song that is a major part of the narrative of the album obviously, and in the context, stands out for no other reason than being the lead single. I preferred the cooler Blue Light version of the single, but acknowledge the Inferno Remix is the most commercially viable version.
“Fire We Make” combines two great voices in R&B together with Keys and Maxwell. Soulful and
throwback, it is a shame there wasn’t more buzz on this duet. Generally, the chemistry between the two is nice with Keys singing verse one and Maxwell singing verse two with a killer, accurate falsetto and the two collaborating well together on the bridge. The end of the lyrical section could have been strengthened where ad libs take over with more structure – aka honing in on vocal chemistry between the two as opposed to two separate ad libs simultaneously. Even given nitpicking, @PopWansel (Andrew “Pop” Wansel) and @Oakwud (Warren “Oak” Felder) deliver solid production work and guest Gary Clark, Jr. adds some ‘sweetness’ with his guitar playing.
“Tears Always Win” is superb, possessing a retro-soul/gospel styled sound. Co-written by Keys, Jeff Bhasker, Bruno Mars, and Phillip Lawrence (Mars/Lawrence provide background vocals), “Tears Always Win” suits Keys perfect. The grit that Keys achieves on this cut is something we haven’t heard from the singer in years. “These lips are miss you, cause these lips ain’t kissing you/these eyes put up a fight/but once again these fears always win…,” Keys sings spiritedly on the chorus.
“Not Even The King” diminishes the ‘energy,’ finding Keys back peddling to a more ‘stripped’ setting. Accompanied only by piano and co-written with Emile Sandé, the results are an ‘unplugged’ performance after the gospel histrionics that characterized “Tears Always Win.” It is another contrast, reminiscent of the somewhat inconsequential “Prelude To A Kiss” from 2007’s As I Am. Keys performs it well. I will admit that when Keys begins singing “All the king’s horses and all the kings men…” I’m just waiting for her to finish the rhyme (“…couldn’t put Humpty back together again…”) – just being honest. But it does sport a nice solid harmonic progression, music theory nuts. Nothing too scary though.
“That’s When I Knew” is archetypical Babyface. Adult-contemporary R&B through and through, the
production is reserved, but effective. The agenda of “That’s When I Knew” is crystal clear – an ode – most likely to Keys’s boo, husband Swizz Beatz. “That’s when I knew/I fell in love/that’s when I knew you were the one/that’s when I knew you stole my heart away from me…,” she sings so passionately. And those who follow Keys on twitter probably saw her talking about how great her man is… She’s even more passionate on the second iteration of the refrain, incorporating more grit. Deep love I’d conjecture.
“Limitedless” is more shocking than “New Day.” Wansel and Felder are back at it on this reggae-tinged number. Keys definitely plays into the gimmicks of this adventurous cut. The issue for a dedicated Keys fan listening to this cut is that it is so shocking, it is hard to even determine the point of the song. One of many contrasts, “Limitedless” is positive in the sense Keys is willing to experiment. On the con side of things, Keys is better slotting between pop, soul, and singer/songwriter styles.
“One Thing” is co-written by Keys, Frank Ocean, and James Ho. Very much in the vein of Frank Ocean, Keys employs a lovely falsetto (for lack of better terminology) that is cool yet ‘piercing.’ Reserved, mysterious and moody like most modern R&B, “One Thing” atones at least marginally for the oddity that is “Limitedless” (even as I write this, I’ll have to re-listen to that one!).
Closing cut “101” is described as being 6:27 in length, but has an outro embedded into it the last 2 minutes. “101” is the final of three cuts co-penned with Emeli Sandé. The emotion of Keys’s performance is indisputable, particularly on the chorus: “But then there’s me, who falls ‘fore your gun/then there’s me, just love me for fun…” The embedded outro is crazy however, finding Keys at perhaps her most assertive screaming “Hallelujah, Hallelujah, kicked in (/down) the door!” The production embodies Keys’s assertiveness, characterized by devastating pummeling clapping drums. Well, she ends with a ‘bang’ to say the least.
So how good is Girl On Fire – “that is the question!” Well, it is a scattered album, first of all. That said, something about its contrasts and Keys’s willingness to experiment ‘tickles my fancy.’ That said, there is a whole bloc of Keys fans – myself included – who would love to hear something more inline with her The Diary of Alicia Keys days, sigh. In that regard, the way you judge this album could be based on your perception of what/who you think Keys should represent as an artist. Deep right?
But from my perspective, I think this is a unique, enjoyable R&B album – one I would endorse as one the years more ‘out of the box’ R&B efforts. I don’t put it up against Frank Ocean or Miguel who are the cream of the crop, but Keys does ‘step out of her box’ more here, whether you ultimately approve or not. I also think people will be divided, based upon my rationale above. Rolling Stone recently gave the album 4 stars while All Music Guide gave it 3 1/2, on level pegging with her previous two outings. For the skeptic listener, I urge you ‘study’ some cuts a couple of times… there are tracks on here that are very much ‘growers’.