In a commercial music industry that seems saturated with superficialities and dance floor anthems, can a female superstar still command our attention without hypersexual lyrics? Alicia Keys, with her foot on the piano pedal, answers with a resounding “yes, she can” on Girl on Fire, her most beautiful album in recent years.
We’ve listened to Alicia grow since she debuted with Songs in A Minor (2001), crowned with long cornrows and singing about a woman’s worth. She has consistently referenced the Western classicists like Beethoven and Debussy, sometimes with a hip-hop influence. She channels her inspiration from both genres into neo-soul ballads like “Fallin’,” motivational anthems like “Superwoman,” or break-up revelations like “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart.” As a result, Alicia’s catalog is both sophisticated and relatable.
Girl on Fire marks a milestone for Alicia: In 2009, she married producer Swizz Beatz and birthed her first son, Egypt, a namesake for the country that once offered solace to an overworked Alicia. “I’ve been able to take control of my business and my life and what it is that I want to do creatively as a businesswoman,” she recently told NPR Music. “And it’s just a great feeling to kind of just arrive in my own space.”
To situate listeners to her “own space,” the album opens with “De Novo Adagio,” whose piano chords seduce us into the second track, “Brand New Kind of Me.” Its assertiveness is complimented by the gentle loop of high notes. “It took a long, long time to get here, took a brave, brave girl to try,” Alicia explains with a barely audible but triumphant laugh, “Don’t be surprised if I talk a little louder, if I speak up when you’re wrong.” The song is likely to become the anthem for embracing the new year.
Girl on Fire, though, is not entirely “brand new.” The album’s feat is less about her experimentation than about her confidence. Alicia is a woman who has mastered her craft. The album relishes in her signature style as she collaborates with new partners like Frank Ocean (“One Thing”), Jamie xx (“When Its All Over”) and Dr. Dre (“New Day”). Alicia’s vocals are noticeably raspier, but her tonality is natural, as if she responds to the shape her music wants to take: Alicia is narrating the soundtrack that reverberates through her soul as a result of her new happiness.
Other memorable tracks include the duet with Maxwell’s charming falsetto and a guitar solo on “Fire We Make,” a vivid proclamation of love’s triumph over material wealth on “Not Even the King,” and Alicia’s subtle but impressive vocal showcase on “That’s When I Knew.”
There are a few moments, however, when Alicia’s flame does not burn as brightly. Though perhaps a nit-picky criticism will take issue with Alicia’s use of “girl” instead of “woman,” Alicia also seems least inspired on the album’s title track (and lead single). She challenges herself, pushing her voice into a higher key than that of her comfort zone. But the “fire” metaphor quickly burns out, with no help from the irrelevant guest feature by rapper Nicki Minaj. In addition, the album’s slower tracks–which are actually its most successful–may feel like lullabies when compared to “Girl on Fire,” as well as the Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre-produced proclamations on “New Day.”
When the album dropped, Alicia broadcast her album online for family, fans, and friends. In the video, she can barely contain her excitement, and nods her head as she falls into the mystery of her own music, smiling as if she imagines overcoming her previous struggles. Now she is a Grammy award winning artist whose talents have turned to the business sector – recently becoming the creative director of Blackberry and singing before millions at the Superbowl. The journey, however, has made her the songstress who has risen from the ashes like a phoenix, poised at her piano not perfectly, but certainly more potently than before.
(After the writing of this article, Girl on Fire debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200.)