In the three years since 2009′s “The Element of Freedom,”Harlem’s Alicia Keys has gotten married (to hip-hop mega-producer Swizz Beatz), had a baby (son Egypt) and collaborated with the likes of Dr. Dre, Bruno Mars, Miguel, Maxwell, Emeli Sande, Frank Ocean and Jamie XX to add modern flourishes to her classic R&B sound.That’s a lot of fodder to incorporate into a 13-track LP, but it all gels impressively well on “Girl On Fire,” her fifth and arguably most consistent album to date.
Low on the filler that bogged down albums like 2003′s “Diary Of Alicia Keys” and more sonically adventurous than 2007′s “As I Am,” “Girl On Fire” explores love past and present with a triumphant mood that prevails throughout. It’s equally concerned with settling the score with a few former flames as it is with celebrating her wedded bliss with her new husband, thus saving it from schmaltz. You know it’s a good sign of a strong album when the singles (“New Day,” the Nicki Minaj-assisted title track) are among the weakest songs.
Which tracks are the best on “Girl On Fire”? Read on for Billboard’s track-by-track review.
1. “De Novo Adagio” – A 78-second piano interlude to pay homage to Keys’ classically trained roots and set the mood for the emotionally expansive album. This is Keys in her element.
2. “Brand New Me” – At one point considered as the title track for Keys’ fifth album, “Brand New Me” is the first of three collaborations with U.K. singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé. The plaintive piano-driven finds Keys confronting an old lover (“It’s been awhile / I’m not who I was before / You look surprised / Your words don’t burn me anymore”) and offering them the opportunity to get to know the new version of herself. “I’m not expecting sorry,” she sings as drums start to surround her, “I’m too busy finding myself.”
3. “When It’s All Over” – “When It’s All Over” is one of Keys’ most musically layered tracks, starting out as a chilled-out funk ballad before accelerating into a blissful British soul jam on the chorus, courtesy of producer Jamie XX (The XX, Drake‘s “Take Care.”) It also features a surprise cameo from son Egypt at the end, who adorably tries to sing along with the song’s “eh eh eh eh” chorus with help from mommy.
4. “Listen To Your Heart” – A rhythmic collaboration with Rodney Jerkins, “Listen To Your Heart” puts a futuristic spin on the 70s-soul vibe that has become Keys’ default setting over the years.
5. “New Day” – One would expect the first musical team-up between Keys, husband Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre to be an epic, genre-defining classic. Instead, “New Day” is a would-be empowerment anthem that never fully takes off due to its cliché-ridden lyrics, namely the bland chorus (“party people say / party people say / it’s a new day – ay ay ay ay.”) But the track does boast some of the hardest-hitting beats Keys has ever been behind, which has already made the song a surprising standout in some of her first live shows supporting “Girl On Fire.”
6. “Girl On Fire” – Taking its title from a magazine profile written about Keys, “Girl On Fire” wears its metaphor thin pretty quickly despite its uplifting message and infectious rap from Nicki Minaj. Though producer Jeff Bhasker brings out a strong, confident vocal from the singer, Keys can’t help but write tepid variations of the song’s theme all over the place (“looks like a girl but she’s a flame,” “hottest of the hottest girls.”).
7. “Fire We Make” – Keys is kindling a different kind of heat on this slow jam, a neo-soul duet with Maxwell that also features guitar work from Gary Clark Jr. Keys doesn’t have many adult love-making ballads to her name, as they can often be bogged down by post-Barry White clichés or latter-period Janet Jackson TMI. But with help from Maxwell’s falsetto-drenched guest verse, “Fire We Make” is worthy of its likely place on many bedroom playlists next to another recent duet partner, Miguel.
8. “Tears Always Win” – In Keys’ hands alone, this missing-my-baby ballad might have fallen victim to overly sappy platitudes about life on the road without her man by her side. But with a little help from Bhasker and songwriting partners Bruno Mars and The Smeezingtons, “Tears Always Win” becomes an anthemic, soaring winner worthy of Keys’ heroes Prince and Stevie Wonder.
9. “Not Even The King” – The just-Alicia-and-a-piano formula is a reliable one that she hasn’t returned to much since 2003′s “If I Ain’t Got You,” so it’s refreshing to hear Keys strip things down on this Emeli Sandé co-penned love song. An emotional highlight.
10. “That’s When I Knew” – If this romantic, acoustic guitar-kissed ballad has a familiar vibe to it, that’s because it marks the quiet return of Babyface as a co-writer. His presence seems to bring out a different kind of confidence in Keys, who delivers one of her most powerful vocals on this heartfelt track.
11. “Limitedless” – A surprising foray into reggae-soul for Keys, this bouncy, Diana King-flavored jam is Keys at her most playful – nevermind that she made up a word for the title.
12. “One Thing” – Starting out as another missing-you-on-the-road song a la “Tears Always Win,” “One Thing” turns into a mournful memory of a passed relationship (“I’ll keep one thing that was made for us,” a hushed Keys sings.)
13. “101″ – Ending things in a minor key but on a hopeful note, “101″ is named after the number Keys assigns herself for being the latest person to fall for an ex’s tricks. But just before things get too somber, the kiss-off turns into a triumphant, 2-minute suite of Keys sing-shouting “Hallelujah / kick in the door” over Bhasker-produced explosion beats. Keys assures the listener that her musical inferno is still burning even after the album ends.