Album Review: Alicia Keys ‘Girl on Fire’

It seems like Alicia Keys can almost do no wrong at this stage in her career. She has established herself, earning respect to such a degree that listeners are willing to give her a chance no matter what she does. This affords her the opportunity for great musical freedom. Whether she is up to the task or wants to take advantage of that is the difference between a good and a great album.

She starts off by proving, as she is often wont to do, that she is much more than a pop star, with the beautiful but very brief “De Novo Adagio”, a piano solo which shows her chops and leads into the true opener, “Brand New Me”. This song sets up the theme of the album very hardhandedly, which is, at its most basic, Alicia singing her own praises. If it was anybody else it might seem extremely narcissistic and arrogant, but from this particular artist it can be said that she certainly has a lot to be proud of. Her story of growth and working to become the icon she is today is at the center of this record. The last third of the song switches from simple and pretty to epic and anthemic, and it sounds amazing.

Wonderful jazz drumming enters the mix on “When It’s All Over”, a very modern and ethereal track just on the cusp of a dance or club song. It’s probably a little complex for most people to actually dance to, but if you were a little high it could be your favorite attempt of the night. “Listen To Your Heart” follows suit with a great neo-soul sound, bringing to mind artists like Esthero and Erykah Badu. These mid-tempo songs work very well for Alicia on this record.

The first half of the Girl on Fire is undeniably strong, and Alicia feels like a woman with a mission. She is fully embracing the charge of being bold, both in life and in her music, and the result to me is a captivating experience absolutely worthy of the name she has built.

“New Day” continues on aggressively, keeping with the album’s themes of personal strength, greeting the future with one’s face to the wind, growth and change. The song feels like it should be a great standout, but it ends up being pretty underwhelming, and may have simply tipped its hat too early.

By the time we arrive at the title track and first single, “Girl on Fire”, it honestly feels a bit uninspired. Nicki Minaj sounds really good here, and as a personality she certainly fits the theme of the song and album, but her presence doesn’t do anything for Alicia Keys’ performance. The song begs the listener to emphatically stomp along and make this their new personal motivational anthem. It will work for that, but it’s one of the least interesting songs on the record, feeling very much like Keys was carefully penning at least one uncomplicated single.

Maxwell is featured on “Fire We Make”, a song which pushes Alicia into her oft-neglected upper register. It’s odd that she doesn’t visit this place more often, considering how good she sounds. Maxwell compliments her voice absolutely beautifully, as the pair soar together over the album’s subtle but potentially brilliant production. It’s a good little soul interlude, but not much more than that.

Some of the later tracks have less momentum than Girl On Fire’s very strong opening, but they aren’t bad songs by any measure. It would have been hard to keep that energy level up, probably, and maybe a cool down period is actually a good thing. If any section of the album has songs that are easy to pass over, though, it’s the second act.

“Not Even the King” feels like a requisite message, that money can’t buy you love and happiness. The song itself just doesn’t have the impact it needs. “That’s When I Knew” is a beautiful song about falling in love, but following another low-key track it gets a bit lost.

Some of the energy and experimentation of the early half of the record makes a return for “Limitedless”, and its placement in the tracklist is actually its greatest strength. It blends a psychedelic 70s vibe with modern urban influences and a strong beat, feeling quite unique to the record, or at least this stage of the record. It will stand alone well enough, and could even be a single if Alicia chooses to be as bold in her marketing as in her life.

The closer is “101”, with a beautiful and moody, almost modal piano chord progression, reminding me of mid-century jazz just as much as perhaps Radiohead. The end of the song wades through restrained swells of strings and comes to a bursting finale full of personal epiphany. It’s a fantastic ending.

The message of the album is clear, and on that it delivers. These are not just anthems for women, to go out and be bold and take what they want from the world, but there is a constant reminder that the best days are still to come. I feel that way about Alicia’s music, too, but even today’s Alicia Keys has put together a very compelling, impactful and meaningful record.

Release Date: November 27, 2012
Image Courtesy of RCA

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