Alicia Keys set herself a high bar by creating a modern classic with her début album, Songs In A Minor. But having sustained an incredible career for the past ten years based on pure talent and likability, she arrives at a turning point in her journey. Her private life is not usually a hot topic of conversation, but marriage and motherhood have inspired this fifth album, Girl On Fire – a celebration of a reinvention.
The opening track, ‘Brand New Me’, sets the tone and is an instant album highlight. It’s about her personal reinvention, but anyone could listen and hear a parallel to their own story. In her recent webcast, many in her ‘musical family’, spoke of how it moved them to tears. The personnel on this record reads like a who’s who of R&B music, with contributions from Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Babyface, and Emeli Sandé.
Keys became a fan of Sandé’s after she supported her at a show last year. Describing themselves as ‘kindred spirits’, she boasts four co-writes on the album, though rumours that Sandé attempted a Part 4 of ‘Read All About It’ are unconfirmed. The songs they have written together – ‘Brand New Me’, ‘New Day’ and ‘Not Even The King’ – are the album’s highlights, although they are the kind of songs Keys has rhymed off solo on previous albums. ‘New Day’ is an anthem, with a strong Rihanna-esque chorus. Even on this track, which is a rare uptempo number, Keys is still her own woman, and her musicality shines through. ‘Not Even The King’ is a classic Alicia Keys song, using her favourite theme of love conquering material riches, but it’s not exhausted. As motherhood traditionally has for the female singer-songwriter, the arrival of her own offspring, Egypt (who makes his vocal début on the album too), has given Keys much food for thought.
Production wise, there’s a lot to be said for Keys having her own New York studio, and a DJ-producer for a husband. In her recent webcast she spoke of finally understanding that ‘less is more’. She leaves piano songs to piano, and other songs – like the incredible title track (featuring Nicki Minaj) – feel full with sparse but strong arrangements. Her sound is polished and defined, a honed version of all the textures she’s tested for years. ‘Listen To Your Heart’ sounds like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On album, but it’s clear and crisp, harking back to her début album, an association repeated with tracks like ‘You Don’t Know My Name’. There’s a similar retro feel to her Bruno Mars collaboration, ‘Tears Always Win’. Like so many, the album gets a bit thin on the ground towards the end, but closes by reverting to another strong piano number, ’101′.
Though her music never pushes boundaries too far, the talents of Alicia Keys are never wasted, and always apparent. Musically, she is the R&B champion of her generation, in the lineage of a very elite group; and with every strong album released, she proves why she’s the rightful heir.
This article originally appeared in SoSoGay magazine.