Keys sets music scene ablaze with Fire

Almost three years after the release of her fourth studio album, The Element of Freedom, Alicia Keys is set to burn up the neo-soul genre with Girl on Fire.

Sultry songstress · Alicia Keys’ latest album, Girl on Fire, tonally differentiates itself from 2001’s Songs in A Minor and 2003’s Diary of Alicia Keys, but the talented singer-songwriter offers fans an enjoyable mix of daring, up-tempo tracks and passionate slow jams. – | Photo by Michelangelo Di Battista, courtesy of RCA Music Group

The 13-track album comes as a bit of a respite for diehard fans of the singer-songwriter who took the Billboard charts by surprise in 2001 with her first major single, “Fallin’.” Flaunting optimistic themes and declarations of self-exploration, the much-anticipated album release will satisfy anxious listeners after a hiatus characterized more by Keys’ marriage to producer Swizz Beats and the birth of her son Egypt than her music. And even among other long-awaited releases, such as Keyshia Cole’s Woman to Woman and Rihanna’s Unapologetic, Girl on Fire manages to hold its own spark.

Keys lulls listeners into her new work with her characteristic piano instrumental opener, a mood-setting technique she’s employed on each of her previous albums. “De Novo Adagio (Intro)” features a compelling piano melody that perfectly segues into the album’s next track, “Brand New Me.”

Perhaps “Brand New Me” stands out as one of Girl on Fire’s best numbers. Here, Keys aptly fluctuates between soft vocals, teasing verses and forceful bridges — all of which accompany powerful lyrics.

“It’s been awhile,” Keys sings. “I’m not who I was before / You look surprised / Your words don’t burn me anymore.”

With her latest album, it’s easy to see that the songstress’ exclamations go beyond the superficial. Given the tone and style of the album’s subsequent tracks, Girl on Fire has Keys moving away from the more soulful, jazz-R&B meld of 2001’s Songs in A Minor and  2003’s  Diary of Alicia Keys — lamentable, but her new sound works. Her lighter tone and raspier vocals hint at an evolved Alicia, one comfortable in her own skin and aware that she has nothing to prove. Just listen to the way she includes her son Egypt’s cooing on “When It’s All Over.” She’s clearly not concerned about comparisons with Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s inclusion of a two-day-old Blue Ivy on “Glory.”

That being said, however, Keys certainly takes risks on Girl on Fire. For her fifth album, she’s adopted an edgier, liberated style fully realized on tracks such as the head-bobbing “New Day,” the reggae-inspired “Limitedless” and the titular “Girl on Fire (Inferno Version).” The latter, which met critical acclaim during its September debut, features a daring drum beat accentuated by assured, soaring vocals from Keys. Hip-hop star Nicki Minaj serves as a collaborator on the track, but even with her forceful rap enhancing the knockout number, it’s clear that Keys has the strength and confidence to hold down the song on her own. Fans who choose to download the main or bluelight versions of “Girl on Fire” — unfortunately unavailable on the complete album — will still get the same effect.

“New Day,” which Keys leaked in lyric-video form over the summer, employs a similar confidence. With a buzzing guitar line generating tension within the first few seconds of the song and volatile snare drums matching Keys’ upbeat vocals, “New Day” adds a catchy, rhythmic element to Girl on Fire. The album’s anthemic fifth track is the stuff of off-the-wall house parties or concerts teeming with fans waving their hands in the air.

But even with these up-tempo numbers, Keys doesn’t allow her fire-inspired theme to dominate her latest album. Cooler, metropolitan ballads, such as “When It’s All Over” and “Listen to Your Heart,” take the listener to a more relaxed state. Jazz-influenced piano lines and muffled, moving percussion hint at Keys’ early days, when tracks like “Diary” and “A Woman’s Worth” defined her as the urban queen of R&B.

Keys takes it down another notch with “Not Even the King,” a number hinging on Keys’ intimate vocals and a soft, patterned piano line. Thematically similar to Diary of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” the number showcases Keys’ imperfect but intriguing vocals. Though the song is hardly musically dynamic, Keys manages to hold the listener’s attention with lyrical imagery and sincerity. Descriptions of embraces “worth more than a kingdom” and a love that surpasses “money,” “diamonds” and “castles” captivate with unabashed honesty and celebrated emotional intimacy.

But against this thematically pure track stands the sultry “Fire We Make,” a collaboration with R&B crooner Maxwell. If “Not Even the King” enchants with depictions of true love, “Fire We Make” seduces with sexual passion.

“I wanna tell you just how I feel,” sings Keys in heightened anticipation. “I wanna love you baby / And it’s going so right.”

And with Maxwell’s drawn-out falsetto verbalizing the track’s love-making images — images suggested by a muggy line heavy on brass and electric guitar instrumentals — “Fire We Make” adds a more physical dimension to Girl on Fire’s proclaimed fascination with burning.

Still, though “Fire We Make” and “Brand New Me” form the highlights of the album, every song remains playable. “Tears Always Win” impresses with a background-heavy chorus and unexpectedly uplifting lyrics, and “That’s When I Knew” provides a sweeter take on memories of love accented by a refreshing, mellow guitar. And as she closes the album with the subtly dynamic “101,” Keys completes a mature album that caters to a variety of sounds and styles.

“You can try but you’ll never forget her name,” wails Keys on “Girl on Fire (Inferno Version).” “She’s on top of the world / Hotter than the hottest girls.”

With Girl on Fire, the timeless talent defends her throne on the R&B stage and delivers an excellent follow-up to albums that have garnered 14 Grammy wins. Though she hardly needed the affirmation, Keys solidifies her reputation as one of the most unforgettable artists of today’s generation. Burn, baby, burn.