Playing with fire: Alicia Keys’ soulful, jazz-infused new album stays red hot

Alicia Keys hasn’t given music critics much to criticize.

The singer has secured a spot as R&B royalty with soulful, piano-accompanied hits about her often-aching heart. On her latest album,Girl on Fire,” Keys does the same in a clearly different mindset. The seasoned musician has a new baby, marriage and sense of empowerment, and you can hear every bit of it.

It’s been a long time coming. Keys got her start at the tender age of 16, when she released her debut album, “Songs in A Minor.” Lead single “Fallin’” catapulted the album into a commercial success. The classically trained pianist continued to blend her classical R&B style with smooth jazz and effortless piano in hits like “If I Ain’t Got You” and “No One.”

Her signature love songs have gotten a bad rap for being cliche, but the efforts in her latest album offer a little something new.

Keys’ world has changed so much since her last album was released three years ago. She married producer Swizz Beatz and gave birth to their son, Egypt, in 2010. It’s easy to hear her joy about her life in songs like “New Day,” an upbeat track produced by her husband, and “When It’s All Over,” a mid-tempo track written by Keys, John Legend and Stacy Barthe. The song also features a short — and very cute — part with her son.

But the most stunning song that speaks to Keys’ new leash on life in undoubtedly “Brand New Me.” The song was co-written by British singer Emile Sande and features lyrics that declare new outlook. As a graceful piano sound compliments her huskily soulful voice, Keys sings: “God, know something had to change / I thought that you’d be happy / I found the one thing I need, why you mad / It’s just the brand-new kind of me.”

She creates an atmosphere of head-bobbing hope, and it’s clear to see that Keys is in a good place, both mentally and emotionally. Based on the composition of the song, Keys highlights the fact that she’s a musician’s musician. Her attention to musical detail and well-thought-out lyrics make this song a musical masterpiece.

Not surprisingly, Keys’ new attitude has unleashed a whole new realm of girl empowerment, sing-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-in-the-shower anthems, with the album’s title track at the forefront. “Girl on Fire,” which features Nicki Minaj in the album version, is an infectious, mid-tempo track with a heavy beat that drives the song.

Keys thankfully doesn’t shy away on the vocals, singing the entire chorus in the upper chorus with such conviction that it might even make you think you can sing that high.

My only complaint is that there weren’t more inevitable hits like these to reach mainstream audiences. Instead, Keys fills the rest of the album with interesting collaborations, which is actually a better choice, musically speaking. “Tears Always Win,” co-written by Bruno Mars, among others, offers an old-school, Motown vibe with the swinging bass line created by the piano and the soulful backing vocals.

“One Thing,” co-written by Frank Ocean, has beautifully observational lyrics and a contemporary R&B feel. However, her duet with Maxwell in “The Fire We Make” is a steamy, bluesy success. Keys’ whispers about sweet love, matched by Maxwell’s hair-raising falsetto, is a certified baby maker.

“Girl on Fire” is a bit of an understatement. Keys has wrapped up her personal success, unmatched talent and new sense of self-worth into a danceable package that is too good to pass up. She really hasn’t missed a beat since she began so many years ago, crooning on piano and rocking her fresh cornrows, and she’s not going to start now.

Keys is more than a girl on fire: She is a flame that can’t be quenched.


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