What’s not to like about Alicia Keys? She’s attractive and talented, and manages to be pop-friendly without being butt-naked or appearing in the tabloids all the time (more on that in a sec).
I also have to say that her albums have the tendency to wear off of me sort of quickly. I’ve fallen in love with each of her previous three studio albums upon release, yet when I play them now, I skip past half the songs. I’m not quite sure why that is, but it definitely tempers the level of enthusiasm I have for her latest effort, “The Element of Freedom”.
“Freedom” is a largely mid/downtempo album of lovelorn songs. Heartbreak and desire figure very heavily in these songs’ lyrics. Alicia seems to have been seriously affected by Cupid in recent days-and if you believe the tabloids, Cupid led her to the very married producer Swizz Beatz, who makes several appearances on this album.
There’s definitely a change in sound on this album vs. Alicia’s earlier work. The acoustic piano-the centerpiece of the majority of her hit material to date-takes a backseat in place of the synthesizer. Now, for most folks, that would spell bad news. Particularly in light of the way music these days enlists synthesized music. Thankfully, there is NO Auto-Tune, no club bounce on this album. The prevalence of synthesizers will actually remind you quite a bit of Prince-this, folks, is a good thing.
The most Prince-y songs on “Freedom” are the midtempo “This Bed”, which sounds like it stepped straight out of 1986, and the breathy, tension-filled “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, a song on which Alicia tries out a breathier singing style. “Wait Till You See My Smile” also has an Eighties vibe, matches a Billy Joel piano figure with thunderous synth work that calls to mind bombastic rock bands like Journey. It’s definitely the album’s anthem.
On a more traditional tack, there’s the album’s first single “Doesn’t Mean Anything”. Most people will remark that this sounds a lot like Alicia’s huge single “No One”, and there are definite similarities. This song, however, has a tenser, more percussive musical background. It’s a sharper backdrop for Alicia’s emotive vocalizing. Meanwhile, the ballad “That’s How Strong My Love Is” has an orchestral sweep that recalls The Force MDs’ classic “Tender Love”. There’s also a rendition of Alicia’s recent hit “Empire State of Mind”. With Jay-Z’s rap and the thundering backbeat removed, the song has less swagger and attitude, but the pensive quality of the song makes up for it. It’s less of a triumphant walk through midtown and more of a wistful look at the starry skyline from the balcony of a penthouse apartment.
Vocally, Alicia sounds rawer and less mannered than she has before. She’s investing more feeling into her lyrics, which bother me a lot less than they used to earlier in her career. She’s become very good at creating a mood-as evidenced by the dark, pensive vibe of “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)”.
Beyonce appears on the track “Put it in a Love Song”, and there’s really no reason for this song to appear here other than to be sort of an “event record”. It feels like Alicia’s dumbing down a little bit-trying to record a song with the vibe and feel of “Single Ladies” when she’s obviously a much more thoughtful songwriter than that. This is really the album’s only immediately skippable track.
Over the course of 8 years and four albums, Alicia has done a pretty good job of combining classic songwriting with a modern attitide, and each of her albums has been a step better than the last one. “The Element of Freedom”, somewhat surprisingly given that this album had very little buzz, continues that trend. Whether behind a piano or a wall of synthesizers, wailing or whispering, Alicia Keys continues to stake her claim as one of the best contemporary R&B musicians working today, and this time, I think I’ll feel exactly the same about this album six months from now.