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
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
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.