Returning to the frontline and ready to offer up some of her signature sound, Alicia Keys puts out her RCA Records debut Girl On Fire. Her fifth studio album overall, it’s the first time she’s released any new material since 2009’s Element of Freedom. With her marriage to producer Swizz Beatz and the birth of their first son, Egypt, part reason for the delay, there’s also been a shift in record labels, some sneaker designing, and a bit of charity work thrown in to the mix for good measure. Refocusing her energies on the music, her most recent ongoing promotional campaign has seen her very much stroll back in to the limelight, and to a good reception.
With that said, the proof is always in the pudding and they say you’re only as good as your latest result. In this case, with some individually beautiful records featured, as an entire project Girl On Fire lacks that little bit of cohesiveness you’re used to hearing from the New York songstress. However, in comparison to many of today’s R&B/soul/pop efforts it would take the win based solely upon the way in which she carries herself vocally, as well as her ability to experiment with classically non-generic sounds that others daren’t.
With a whole host of individuals contributing to the album in some way, shape, or form, the likes of Bruno Mars, Babyface and Jamie xx are just a few featured names . A name that finds itself on to the credits list more than once is the UK’s very own Emeli Sande. With writing duties on three of the 13 tracks, the best of the bunch comes when Keys closes the album out with “101.” Soft, sensitive, and sweetly alluring, the way in which Keys plays with vocal levels is simplistic yet ultimately effective. More like a lyrical storyboard than a song, the passionate trip you’re taken on as the listener is all thanks to Sande’s framework.
While Keys had a hand in writing every song on Girl On Fire, the album’s better tracks appear to be ones where she’s teamed up with another writing talent. Case in point, the Frank Ocean assisted “One Thing.” Anyone who had the pleasure of hearing Ocean’s Channel Orange album earlier this year will instantly notice the similarities between this song and a number of songs featured on Ocean’s debut. Easy on the ear and beautifully written, the Malay and Keys produced gem is audio relaxation in its purest form.
Choosing not to include the original version of the album’s title track is slightly baffling. Stiff from start to finish, the Nicki Minaj assisted “Inferno Version” of “Girl On Fire” lacks potency. With nothing but a drum to support the two of them, Minaj’s lyrics sound forced while Keys’ vocals can’t carry the entire track. The original version, with its additional instrumental layers, echoes fulfillment with a dose of passion.
Another questionable decision then comes when the Dr. Dre produced “New Day” sees 50 Cent’s verse cut from the final version. Whether or not it has anything to do with the track being sold to Keys before 50 could use it, New York radio stations are only playing the version featuring 50 Cent. The track itself injects some life in to this otherwise mellow project.
Offering fans of unfiltered soul the opportunity to hear some quality material, “Fire We Make” is by far the album’s most splendid moment. At a steady pace, Keys goes toe to toe with one of the genre’s most respected artists – Maxwell. Quoting and adjusting Janet Jackson’s famous opening line from “That’s The Way Love Goes” – “Like a moth to a flame,” Keys vocally lowers her pitch while Maxwell gets his falsetto on resulting in both aiding the creation of a soulfully attractive gem.
Girl On Fire works as a platform to reintroduce one of the genre’s finest exports to the masses. The mix of peaceful practices with a few questionable decisions results in this not being Alicia Keys’ worst album by a long shot, but it’s not her best either. It’s a great place to start for those with little knowledge on the Hell’s Kitchen singer, and with room for improvement there’s bound to be a flood of exceptional material still to come.