Album Review: Alicia Keys – Girl on Fire (2012)

Keys returns to form, a little, with ‘Fire,’ 3/5 stars

Carl J. Bachus | Collegio Writer

Alicia Keys is nothing if not ever-evolving, especially in terms of genre. She’s hopped from neo-soul to mainstream R&B to top 40 pop in a ma

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tter of 10 years. Unfortunately, her music has gone downhill a bit since the days of “Songs in A Minor,” with the songs becoming more and more generic with every album. This isn’t the case with Keys’ latest effort, “Girl on Fire,” her most interesting album in almost a decade.

Album art from Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire" (2012, RCA).

Album art from Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” (2012, RCA).

The first half of “Girl on Fire” is probably some of Keys’ most fun music in a while. Most of the album’s standout tracks are in the first half. The up-tempo songs, surprisingly, are the most effective songs – notably the Nicki Minaj-assisted “Girl on Fire.” Keys and Minaj have struck gold with this song. It’s a bombastic, exciting female empowerment anthem that sums up Keys’ recurring theme of reinvention on an epic scale and features a more subdued, less theatrical verse from Minaj, one of her best in a while. Other standouts include the Jamie xx-produced “When It’s All Over,” an ethereal and moody jam, reminiscent of an upbeat version xx’s “Take Care” with Drake, and “New Day,” a radio-ready stomper, complete with “eh-eh-eh-eh” vocal breakdowns and an 808-heavy beat by Swizz Beats and Dr. Dre.
In “Fire,” Keys employs a list of talented collaborators, including Jeff Bhasker (Beyoncé, Fun.), Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and Swizz Beatz, but is all over the place with her inspirations. One song will sound like Alicia Keys but the next will sound like Suzanne Vega, the next Jazmine Sullivan and so on. The ballads toward the end of the album slow the LP’s momentum a lot. Some of them, like the dull “Tears Always Win,” may have the listener wishing for more tracks like “Fire We Make,” which is the best ballad on the album. Keys trades her piano for a groovy jazz keyboard for this silky, Maxwell-assisted duet. The production is extremely intricate, featuring handclaps and a smooth guitar/trumpet duet, and complements Keys’ sweet raspy delivery.
Keys is attempting to reinvent herself with more of a pop mentality while also trying to return to her more piano-based roots and she’s meeting herself at a standstill. It’s as if she tried to build an entire album around the energy she brought to the chorus of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” but it works only half the time because these ballads are just plain dull. On the other hand, Keys is also usually a victim of filler, having more wasteful content than quality music on her LPs. This is not the case with her current effort. In fact, “Girl on Fire” may be Keys’ most thematically consistent album since 2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys.”
“Girl on Fire” is no “Songs in A Minor” but it’s a major improvement over her last effort, “The Element of Freedom.” The album will seem boring to many pop aficionados, but it succeeds more as an experimental R&B offering than anything. It’s not perfect but it’s far from its mediocre predecessors.

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