Alicia Keys, how long must I wait? For that breakthrough album? For you to get all US Army and be all you can be?
She's been a huge success from the beginning, recording her first album while still in her teens and selling 12 million copies and snagging five Grammys. Second album, 8 mil and four Grammys. This new one, her sixth, has had the slowest start yet, but sales for all CDs have plummeted and downloads of entire albums don't begin to make up the difference.
But I'm not talkin' sales figures, I'm talking songs, and soul, and fire, and despite early high praise for her newest album that raised my expectations, Girl on Fire is not The One I've been waiting for.
But, it's probably her best yet, the most consistent, and as with previous albums has a killer song or two and a few more that are less obvious gems.
At first I didn't care for the album much once it got past the lovely opening adagio and the standout "Brand New Me." But one of the banes of a responsible music critic's existence is to play an album over and over and over until you're sure you got all there is to get, but just before you're sick to death of it. Many reviewers don't work that way, but this album is a classic example of why you should. Some albums reveal all the first time through, but many have to grow on you, and this one did.
When the third song, "When It's All Over," kicks in, with a droning electronic buzz up front and spastic drumbeats, I thought it was.... all over. With repeated listenings I focused more on her classy piano styling underneath (she is classically trained) and the old-style soulfulness of her vocal (thankgod she eschews the annoying gymnastics Whitney Houston made de rigueur for all who followed). Sure, she ends it with a saccharine baby talk appearance by her young son Egypt, but as a parent, and with knowledge that this album is informed, for the better, I'd say, by how much her life changed in the three years since her last album, I give her a pass.
But not on "Listen to Your Heart," which is lyrically just too sappy. Nor really on "New Day," a hip hoppish party people anthem, but you know what? That's me, and I'm not her, which is a New Yawk girl from the streets of Hell's Kitchen. I don't dig that groove but she and millions of her peers do, so of course you're going to get songs like this. And obviously her peers approve.
Then we get to the title song, the other top cut, and you do have to get past the Nicki Minaj intro, and she pops up again 2/3 in; but I've gotten to like and respect Minaj, I think she's very aware and entertaining in her over-the-top everything, but if you don't, just wait for Keys' belted chorus and you will have to sit back and say yeah, she's a star.
I have to throw in here that Alicia Keys is a star in the old sense of the word. Her diversity is astonishing, from all the music stuff (and there's lots) to acting, directing and producing film, TV and on Broadway, writing a best-selling novel, designing sneakers, and substantial worldwide philanthropy. If you've watched any live music show in the last few years, and especially in the last six months, from the Super Bowl to any number of star-studded fundraisers, she's there and usually blowing away the legends by simply sitting down at the piano and ripping loose.
That's where Keys shines, but someday she'll get it completely right in the studio and finally I'll be able to say, told you so.
Until she does, listen to the rest of Girl on Fire and discover your own gems, even if it takes some patience. Listen to that voice, to her song structure, her keyboard skill. Anyone who brings in the great and still under-the-radar Gary Clark Jr, even just to dress up the end of one song ("Fire We Make") with a gorgeous solo, knows what she's doing.