Since her last album in 2009, Alicia Keys got married, had a child and collaborated on a wide range of other artists’ projects. “It’s been a while / I’m not who I was before” she warns on “Brand New Me,” the aptly titled second track off of her most recent release, Girl on Fire.

Alicia Keys

B+
Girl on Fire
RCA


And she’s not. Girl on Fire serves as Keys’s reintroduction to the world after three years of being relatively inactive in music, but instead of bringing back the old Alicia Keys, Girl on Fire serves to introduce a new Alicia, or rather, a more updated one.

Keys worked with a variety of collaborators on the album — from Bruno Mars to Jamie xx — and drew inspiration from other genres and eras outside of contemporary R&B, much like Beyoncé did with 2011’s 4.

“New Day,” produced by her husband, Swizz Beatz, and Dr. Dre, is bombastically aggressive and wildly feel-good, and features one of the best choruses in recent memory. 50 Cent also released a version of the song as a single, and while Keys does an admirable job sing-rapping her way through the verses, a 16 from a rapper like 50 could’ve helped.

Songs like “Not Even the King,” “Limitedless” and “That’s When I Knew” feel out of place with the current of personal awakening running through the album. Though Keys sounds great on both, “Not Even the King” and “That’s When I Knew” are slow, unoriginal ballads that feel like failed attempts at recreating the magic of her first album. “Limitedless” is a reggae-tinged song that, while a good-natured attempt at a new sound, lacks energy and could use some of the ferocity of “New Day.” More, these three tracks are back-to-back-to-back near the end of the album, effectively creating a hole and slowing down much of the momentum from the songs before it.

Funny enough, the two best tracks on the album don’t sound like they’re sung by a brand new artist, but rather, a more mature one. For “One Thing,” Keys enlisted Frank Ocean and the producer behind his incredible summer debut Channel Orange, James Ho. It’s easy to hear Frank singing the song — the organ twangs from “Forrest Gump” and the bass slaps of “Pink Matter” are all over the track — but Keys does an admirable job and makes it her own.

The title track, labeled the “Inferno Version” with the inclusion of Nicki Minaj, is the perfect Alicia Keys song. Over a break drum beat and sparse piano chords, Keys emphatically and proudly toasts to an unstoppable heroine while belting out trademark ohhs and ahhs found on the chorus of her other hit, “No One.”

“Girl on Fire” is only softened by the presence of Minaj, an obvious commercial plug by Keys’s label, who attempts to add some flair to the song but sounds out of place. If Keys had really wanted to include a female rapper, she should’ve asked Eve, Missy Elliott, or, in a fantasy world, Lauryn Hill — more feminist, tenured and soulful rappers who haven’t spit lines like “She ain’t a Nicki fan than the bitch deaf dumb / You ain’t my son you my mothafuckin’ stepson.” Maybe not the best rapper to feature on a song about empowering women.

Girl on Fire won’t be the first album Keys’s new son will listen to when he grows old enough to appreciate her music. It isn’t as soulful as her first nor as catchy as her second, but it is probably the one he will appreciate most. Girl on Fire doesn’t sound like Keys’s previous work, which may upset some diehard fans, but it is powerful, emotional and, though timid at times, groundbreaking for a woman who has already accomplished so much.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.