Until this week I've been what you'd call a casual Alicia Keys fan. I've always admired her talent and loved the occasional song ("No One", "Karma" and "You Don't Know My Name" spring to mind) but I never really connected with her as a person. She always seemed a little too perfect and untouchable to me. Kind of like Whitney in the late 80s before she discovered crack. Well, Alicia's normally immaculate facade is starting to look a little vulnerable. The lead singles from her latest album have underperformed, the diva has battled depression and she's currently embroiled in a major scandal after shacking up with Swizz Beats. Strangely enough, I love floptastic, homewrecking Alicia! There is actually a real person in there and she's just as flawed and messed up as the rest of us. I finally feel her emotional turmoil and there's plenty of that on "The Element Of Freedom". As usual, Alicia doesn't stray far from matters of the heart but this time around she's working with a broader musical palette. The piano based ballads are still there but they're now mixed with synth drenched mid-tempo pop songs and even a club banger of a duet with Beyoncé. "The Element Of Freedom" won't appeal to everyone but it's a late (and very unexpected) contender for my album of the year. I hope this review inspires the AK haters to listen this remarkable artist with unbiased ears.
The Element Of Freedom (Intro)
I hate intros and interludes - and this is no exception. Alicia talks about blooming into a flower from a "tightly closed" bud. I think that's a fancy way of saying that freedom is having the courage to take chances and be yourself. Awww.
Love Is Blind
From the opening onslaught of piano and synths, it's immediately apparent that Alicia has finally moved on from the straightforward soul of her previous albums. I really like Jeff Bhasker's evocative and sparse production but this is one of my least favourite songs on the album. That being said, "Love Is Blind" perfectly sets the mood for "The Element Of Freedom" and has a haunting quality that I find quite beautiful. However, the best is definitely yet to come.
Doesn't Mean Anything
The album's much maligned lead single stalled at #60 in America and missed the charts completely in Australia. It was widely labelled as the poor man's "No One" and some critics even accused the diva of being a one trick pony. While "Doesn't Mean Anything" could easily fit on any of Alicia's previous albums, I think it's unfair to criticise her for exploring familiar themes. Aretha and Stevie covered similar ground for most of their careers without having to justify themselves. Personally, I love the song. Sure, it's a bit soppy but it appeals to the hopeless romantic in me and I love the simplicity of the arrangement. My only problem with "Doesn't mean Anything" is the fact that it's too subtle for a lead single and completely misrepresents the rest of the album.
Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart
Now this is more like it. The album's second single channels the 80s with an explosion of synths and keyboards. The lyrics are typically dramatic - Alicia definitely paints in bold strokes when it comes to expressing emotions - but I can identify with the song's love sick/slightly deluded narrator more than I care to admit. "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart" isn't exactly setting the charts on fire either but hopefully it's something of a grower. It's such a treat to hear Alicia explore new sounds and with this she proves she's just as adept at knocking out pop songs as she is writing soul ballads.
Wait Till You See My Smile
And the award for my favourite song on "The Element Of Freedom" goes to the gorgeous "Wait Till You See My Smile" (well, equal favourite with "Empire State Of Mind"). The song is an absolutely essential addition to the canon of I'll show 'em/wait till they see me now anthems. However, unlike the majority of those songs (see Kina's fabulous "Girl From The Gutter") - this is completely lacking in bitterness and spite. Rather Alicia has written a self-empowerment mantra for herself. I love the production on this. The combination of piano and keyboards against a backdrop of pretty synths is stunning and the lyrics are genuinely inspiring: "You don't really need 'em, cause you're stronger and you're better and you're ready for whatever". Sing it, Alicia. This is kind of random but does the song remind anyone else of Carly Simon's 1989 hit "Let The River Run"? The older gays might see where I'm coming from.
That's How Strong My Love Is
After experimenting with new production techniques, Ms Keys returns to her trademark piano based soul sound on the self-produced "That's How Strong My Love Is". The woman's talent is actually kind of scary. I can't think of any other diva in pop who could create something this good on their own. Sure, it's another slightly over the top love song but why fuck with a winning formula? I love Alicia's voice on this - she really lets loose and shows off her range. Some people might find the lyrics a little clichéd but I just think they're sweet and romantic. I clearly share her all or nothing approach to love. I bet we're the same star sign. (Edit: Yep, we're both January babies)
Unthinkable (I'm Ready)
Brace yourself, stalkers - you have a new theme song! I'm pretty sentimental but even I would run in the opposite direction if someone said "I was wondering maybe, could I make you a baby?" Disturbing lyrics aside, there's an old school R'n'B feel to this languid jam that is actually rather appealing. A solid album track.
Love Is My Disease
This is interesting. "Love Is My Disease" is a co-production between longtime collaborator Kerry "Krucial" Brothers and Toby Gad (Fergie's "Big Girls Don't Cry" and Beyoncé's "If I Were A Boy"). The result is a mid-tempo guitar pop song with a distinct traces of reggae and ska. It shouldn't work but it does. The more organic production breaks up the album nicely and Alicia writes about the dark underbelly of love with insight and honesty.
Like The Sea
"Wait Till You See My Smile" and "Empire State Of Mind" might be my favourite songs on the album but "Like The Sea" is a very close equal second with the Beyoncé duet. This mesmerising extended metaphor doubling as a pop song is as clever as it is catchy. It kind of reminds me of vintage Stevie Wonder. I love the dark, atmospheric production and the line "love is like the sea, leaves you on your knees - first you're floating high then it takes you, takes you under" is one of my favourite lyrics of the year. Alicia speaks the truth.
Put It In A Love Song (Duet With Beyoncé)
This duet is whole reason I checked out "The Element Of Freedom" in the first place. As most of you know, I'm a devout Beyjesus convert and I couldn't wait to hear her second superstar duet in the space of a month. I thought Beyoncé's Lady GaGa collaboration ("Telephone" not "Videophone"!) was pretty extraordinary but I think I prefer "Put It In A Love Song". It's a ridiculously catchy urban pop tune in the vein of "Single Ladies". This is the most commercial track Alicia has recorded since she teamed up with Eve on "Gangsta Lovin'". I love the camp intro and the divas battle their way through the verses before joining forces on a brilliant chorus. My favourite part is the "work it out, gotta work it out" breakdown. Swizz Beats also brings his A game to the production - it's effortlessly slick and the hand claps are a nice touch. Fingers crossed this is released as a single.
Alicia continues to try new things by exploring 70s funk on this slinky jam. The heavy bass mixes surprisingly well with the crisp synths and the sexy lyrics give the song an unexpected edge. "This Bed" wouldn't sound out of place on an early Prince record, which is high praise indeed. Another winning album track.
Distance And Time
The musical experimentation is momentarily put on hold for another piano ballad. "Distance And Time" sounds a lot like "Doesn't Mean Anything" - only better. They both share the same stripped back production and their themes aren't dissimilar. I tend to gravitate towards these sentimental ballads, so I'm not complaining. The reason I prefer this to "Doesn't Mean Anything" is the beautiful splash of gospel towards the end of the song and the sweetness of the lyrics. Warning - this will give you the urge to sway your lighter in the air and send someone a text that you will most probably later regret. I speak from experience.
How It Feels To Fly
Alicia Keys knows how to sing a restrained piano ballad better than anyone in the business but she doesn't do overblown power ballads very often. Which is probably why "How It Feels To Fly" is such a standout. This is the kind of tits out balladry that Mariah mastered in the 90s before her career was sabotaged by The-Dream. I like the fact that it isn't so much about love and relationships as taking chances and following your heart. It's about as subtle as a sledge hammer but a bit of melodrama never hurt anybody.
Empire State Of Mind (Part II)
I could and probably should devote an entire post to how much I love "Empire State Of Mind". I'm still pretty obssessed with the Jay Z original (currently at #1 for the 4th week in America) but I think Alicia's sequel surpasses it. There's something incredibly uplifting about this song. It perfectly captures the energy and inspiration you get from living in a big city - not to mention the hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. Alicia's version more so than Jay Z's because it has so much soul. I get goosebumps every time I hear "Empire State Of Mind (Part II)". A modern classic.
Through It All
Bonus tracks are usually pretty hit and miss but "The Element Of Freedom" boasts two absolute winners. "Through It All" is kind of like an Alicia Keys piano ballad on steroids. The sound is still very organic but the song is so upbeat and uplifting. I love the strings, the ruthless optimism of the lyrics and the breezy chorus. Alicia also delivers one of her best vocals. Send this to someone you love.
Prayer For Forgiveness
"Prayer For Forgiveness" is like the musical flipside of "Through It All". It's probably the album's darkest, most introspective moment but it gives me chills. The quasi-orchestral arrangement is lush and beautiful and it's refreshing to hear Alicia explore deeper issues than love and heartache. Lyrics like "I feel like my mind is haunting me, I think of every little mistake that has been made" lead me to believe that this was written about the diva's battle with depression. Interestingly the song was co-written by super songwriter for hire Linda Perry.
This is the album's iTunes bonus track. Unlike the other bonus tracks, I understand why this was left off the album. In a nutshell - it's a bit rubbish. Alicia teams up with an uncredited male vocalist (someone tell me who it is, it's driving me crazy) for a sleepy duet. It's nice enough but desperately in need of a chorus. Only for the AK faithful.