Alicia Keys is, in a word, lovely. She maintains a grace and sense of decorum that often eludes other wildly successful R&B songstresses — Keys, for instance, will never be found guilty of a hysterical diva meltdown or embarrassing public panty-flash. But while her personal life is all fine and dandy, fans might wish Keys would’ve been much bolder — sassier, even — on her latest album, The Element of Freedom.
The Element of Freedom
This isn’t to say Keys’s latest isn’t a decent album. It is. But coming from a woman who astounded listeners with her incredibly poignant debut track (“Fallen”), the album as a whole doesn’t exactly impress. Keys’s gritty authenticity has mostly dissipated, only to be replaced with an expected brand of polished prettiness. On The Element of Freedom Keys sounds very sweet and lovely, but by this point listeners all know what she’s capable of. Keys possesses an incredibly flexible voice and a clear gift for musical lyricism. It’s a bummer to hear her play it so safe, with tepidly pleasant, harmless songs.
But Keys’s substantial talent as an artist keeps The Element of Freedom from degenerating into pure sentimentalism. Although the album’s focus is mostly centered on relationships and break-ups, never once do the love songs sound trite, cloying or obvious. If anything, Keys maintains an understatement in her songs that expressively reflects her personal demeanor. Unfortunately, sometimes the subtlety of her songs translates into an unexciting listen.
The album, a mix of forgettable pop ballads and the occasional epically awesome anthem, starts to pick up about halfway through its cumbersomely lengthy 16-track running order. The first half, which seems to almost entirely consist of easy-listening for the over-30 crowd, makes for unobtrusive ambiance, but won’t particularly stick or resonate with the hipper, younger set. “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” is just as bland as its title sounds, keeping in line with the album’s flavorless first half.
But the album does contain the occasional sparkler. “Like the Sea” samples Debussy’s “Arabesque #1” to terrific effect. The nostalgic, trickling piano notes provide a familiar backdrop to Keys’s emotive vocals — a clever, believably organic blending of the old and the new.
Clear album standout “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” is a refreshing alternative to the first, overexposed collaboration with Jay-Z of the same title. There is an honesty in this track that the original lacked. Keys shines on her own in this epic, exhilarating love note to the greatest of American cities — “Concrete jungles where dreams are made of / There’s nothing you can’t do.”
On the other hand, Keys’s collaboration with the Mrs. Jay-Z, Beyoncé, is not nearly as “fierce” (to borrow a term from the missus). “Put it in a Love Song” seems to lack inspiration. It’s an infectious tune, but not a memorable one, despite the talent and wow-factor of Keys and Knowles. Both artists are known for their striking, unique voices, but in their collaboration, scale back to accommodate the other, which diminishes the potential of the track.
Although The Element of Freedom is a decent album, it lacks punch. While a few gems are sprinkled among a landscape of relatively lackluster songs, they aren’t nearly precious enough to carry the weight of the album.
The opening track, “The Element of Freedom,” has Keys sermonizing about taking risks: “And the day came / when the risk it took / to remain tight and closed in the bud / was more painful / than the risk it took bloom.”
It would be nice had Keys taken her own advice on the album itself.