Thursday, November 29, 2012

RECORD REVIEW: Alicia Keys "Girl on Fire"

Alicia Keys
Girl on Fire

Delivering the same
authentic song-based 
R&B that first made
her a superstar a
decade ago, Alicia
Keys returns with a
start-to-finish winner
— maximum killers
and minimum fillers.

Produced by Keys, and a crew of accomplished colleagues, including, Dr. Dre, Babyface and Swizz Beatz, Girl on Fire is arguably her strongest effort since 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys. Clearly a team effort, Keys also collaborates on all 13 tunes with several of today's marquee songwriters, such as, Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean and Jeff Bhasker as well as frequent go-to guys, Andrew "Pop" Wansel, Warren "Oak" Felder and Amber "Sevyn" Streeter — even classic arena rock legend Billy Squier makes a contribution.

The opening piano instrumental, "De Novo Adagio," makes for a mighty intro to the delicate, yet soaring "Brand New Me" — a supremely well-crafted song that is by far one of the record's best and most powerful tracks.

"When It's All Over" initially presents a sort of schizo jazz vibe that morphs successfully and seamlessly into a smooth-tasting "More, More, More" flavor — another record highlight to be sure.

Keys' music always has been at its magical and organically soulful best when she simply (and fully) embraces her classic-style R&B anointing and focuses less on trying to appeal to the "now" crowd. Hence, the honest and pure, "less is more" approach on such gems as "Listen to Your Heart," "New Day" and "Not Even the King" makes for songs that are delectable, ambient delights. 

But despite the five credited songwriters and being the record's much-touted lead single, it's the title track that actually falls short. Simply put, Alicia Keys is a superb talent of the highest order and this one is just weak when compared to the other 12 tracks. And while I realize that Nicki Minaj has sold millions of recordings, so did Richard Pryor — but that didn't make him a musician. I also recognize that Minaj is wildly popular among young people who  enjoy watching videos of wacky clowns cursing on YouTube. However, her contribution to "Girl on Fire" is a distraction for music fans and compromises Keys' top-notch artistry.

The passion-filled "Fire We Make" is another of the record's crowning jewels. This Rhodes-driven duet with Maxwell oozes the steamy soulfulness reminiscent of old school R&B records from the likes of Shalamar, Teena Marie and Rose Royce — but with a little extra stank factor on the back end. And the closing Ace Frehley-style guitar work by Gary Clark Jr. is absolutely blistering.

The six and a half minute epic, "101" would, could and should have been a perfect closer, as it is an incredibly powerful solo piano / vocal piece.

"I might as well stand
in front of a bullet.
Close my eyes and kick
the chair to the floor.
It's like a speeding
train is coming.
I know you've crashed it
a hundred times before."
-Alicia Keys

But just as Keys is about to close the deal and take us away to that magical, hypnotic place where all great music is supposed to take us, "101" segues at the five-minute mark into a brash-sounding finale so jarring, it only can be described as a bona fide buzz kill. So much for a "happy ending!"

While Girl on Fire does have a rough spot or two, it is over all, a tremendous record — one of Keys' strongest works to date and without a doubt, one of the best pop / R&B releases of 2012. A+

-Christopher Long
(November 2012)

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