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From Behind Her Piano, Keys Demonstrates Her Raw Musical Talent

For The Heights

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

Alicia Keys’ new album, Girl On Fire, begins the same way the songstress began her music career, with just her and the piano. The album’s instrumental opener, “De Novo Adagio,” is a nod to Keys’ classical roots and reminds fans that the professionally trained Columbia University grad is, in fact, a serious artist. Once Keys’ past has been acknowledged, the following track introduces the intent of rebirth and new beginnings that is threaded through the rest of the album. Although the track, entitled “Brand New Me,” features Keys proclaiming her fresh start, it falls flat in that it doesn’t exactly feature a fresh sound. The slow ballad, co-written by Scottish songwriter Emeli Sande, is honest and vocally on par, but it fails to distinguish itself from Keys’ previous work. The next Jamie xx produced track, “When It’s All Over,” evokes a bit more interest with a background of horns and snare drums creating a generally more upbeat vibe to Keys’ jazzy-smooth crooning.

It’s not until the song “New Day,” however, that Keys’ confident new demeanor is matched with an equally bold sound. This is not surprising considering the track is a catchy collaboration with hip-hop icons Swizz Beatz (Keys’ husband) and Dr. Dre. Keys replaces her usual smooth, belting vocals with a series of sharp eh’s and oh’s, and a slight accent channeling that of Rihanna. This new vocal technique paired with a thumping backbeat makes for a fresh departure from Keys’ ballad-heavy R&B comfort zone. Other successful team efforts include “Fire We Make,” featuring Maxwell and “Tears Always Win,” a collaboration with Bruno Mars.

The pairing of two of R&B’s most powerful voices in “Fire We Make” results in a sensual, smooth slow-jam attempted, but not quite achieved, in the earlier track “Listen To Your Heart.” Although at points Maxwell’s range threatens to overpower Keys’ low moaning, the artists’ voices manage to, for the most part, contrast each other perfectly. While few doubted that a duet with fellow R&B star Maxwell would be a success, more were skeptical about Keys’ collaboration with Bruno Mars and the Smeezingtons, the team behind Cee Lo Green’s “F--k You,” and Mars’ “Grenade.” Keys’ “Tears Always Win,” does feature the doo-whop vibe inevitably associated with many Bruno Mars creations. The retro vibe, however, goes along well with Keys’ soulfulness, resulting in a pleasant, honest, and upbeat edition to an album otherwise overweighed by tracks too low, slow, and smooth. The album’s title track is clearly also its defining ballad. The inclusion of a rap from the ever-eccentric Nicki Minaj may seem like it would be out of place next to Keys’ voice. Minaj tones down the theatrics, however, integrating her part perfectly into the song. The result: a Billboard Top 100 worthy power-ballad.

Keys’ most emotional and impressive moments, however, are not in her collaborations, but rather in her most under-produced tracks that showcase simply her and her piano. In “Not Even A King,” the raspiness of Keys’ voice, accompanied only by a few simple piano notes gives an effect so vulnerable and intimate it could be a lullaby. This track is one of the best examples of Keys’ uncommon ability to showcase her vocal talent without belting her lungs out.

The album draws to a close with tracks, which, though they sound good on their own, sound awkward when played in succession. The unexpected appearance of electric guitars paired with a strong backbeat and a booming snare drum in “Limitedless” would have a much more foot-tapping effect had it not been surrounded by slow, subtle ballads, “That’s When I Knew,” “One Thing,” and “101.”

Overall, however, Girl On Fire as a whole can be deemed refreshing. The songs were not always refreshing in the way that their sounds were completely different than any of Keys’ previous work. With the exception of a few tracks, most of the album emits the same vibe present in previous efforts, As I Am and The Diary of Alicia Keys. Girl on Fire is refreshing in the way that it features a subdued and raw, yet still interesting and catchy, version of hip-hop and R&B that is so difficult to find today, given that the genre has become infiltrated by autotune and computer-generated beats. Similarly, the honesty and deeper meanings which lie behind Keys’ every track are a welcome rarity that give each song a depth no synthetic beat could ever provide.

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