Alicia Keys – The Element Of Freedom (Album Review)

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12 Grammy Awards, 6 US number Ones, 4 Multi-Platinum Selling Albums and over 25 Million record sales worldwide. In the 8 years since Alicia Keys first burst onto the scene she has become one of the most critically and commercially acclaimed artists of all time. In a music industry that was saturated with samey faceless throw away pop, Alicia was the breath of fresh air that had been missing since Lauryn Hill. With her debut album, Songs in A Minor, Alicia simply sat at the piano and with no gimmicks wowed the audience with her voice, her instrumental skill and her gospel-infused R&B soul.

On her new album, The Element of Freedom Alicia has made something of a departure from her earlier albums. Gone are the ’60s and ’70s Motown and R&B influences – and in their place is a more contemporary and experimental sound. The production creates an otherworldly dark, cold landscape for the listener. This is then juxtaposed by Alicia’s delicate voice which conveys a real vulnerability on this album.

Opening with “The Element of Freedom”, a short spoken word track somewhat reminiscent of Maya Angelou, Alicia sets the tone for a body of work that is both personal and cathartic, conveyed in the lyrics: “And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in a bud, was more painful than the risk it took to bloom, this is the element of freedom”

The first full track on the album is the moody and brooding “Love is Blind”, a regretful reflection on a broken relationship that somehow is a perfect soundtrack for these dark, cold winter nights. This then takes us into the lead single “Doesn’t Mean Anything”, a soul/pop-rock mid tempo track with an infectious chorus that deals with the realities of fame and the fact that no matter how much success one may experience, it doesn’t mean anything without someone to share it with. The track delves further into the album theme of catharsis and it becomes clear that Alicia is speaking from personal experience.

“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”, the second single to be taken from the album, is one of the strongest tracks on The Element of Freedom. The song has a subtle but effective catchiness and soothing quality. In the Heroes-inspired video for the track, Keys is featured as a young woman with the superhuman ability to bring people back to life. However her gift is also her curse as is revealed towards the end of the video, an interesting metaphor for what Keys is trying to express lyrically in the song.

Moving away from the downbeat ballads, “Put It In a Love Song” sees Alicia teaming up with the one and only Beyonce. Despite possessing a catchy hook line, the track fails to realise the full potential of a pairing between two such talented megastars. On “This Bed” Alicia incorporates elements of ’80s production and a Chaka Khan inspired groove on a catchy pop/R&B track that although subtle, is actually one of the hidden gems of the album.

However the highlight of the album has to be the stripped down piano vocal version of her huge Jay-Z hit collaboration “Empire State of Mind II”. Backed by just her piano, the sentimentality of the lyrics seem to convey a story behind the words; Alicia’s story! In all, The Element of Freedom will not go own as a quintessential album of the Alicia Keys catalogue, but will instead be a milestone in the evolution of truly gifted artistry.

–Reviewed by Chris O’Gorman

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