Alicia Keys – The Element of Freedom
3 stars out of 5
Is it possible to give 2.75 stars? Cause that’s what I would give this album. LOL, not quite 3 stars but not quite THAT bad either.
Overall, Alicia Keys delivers a suprisingly largely tepid album, chock full of rehashes of her old self, or others, or of preceding songs on the same record. The songs themselves are nothing to be a-twitter about, as she really doesn’t break any new ground with her writing. She takes on and adapts a largely 80’s sound on this album, and is considering that “growth”, since her last album was largely 70’s in its musical influences, particularly 70’s soul.
Her attempts at mixing 80’s pop and rock come off as overly pop and her soulfulness is lost admist a drege of attempts at power ballads and uninspired love-song lyrics. On top of that, her largely unimpressive vocal performances at time seem to be a bit much, as she vocally careens and barrels her way through a lot of these songs, leaving dynamics and tue passion on the cutting room floor. She teeters on the edge vocally between oversinging and screaming, leaving you hoping she isn’t flat from trying to hoard, deaf from listening, and hoarse from the attempt in the first place.
This album comes off as a calculated attempt at pop/crossover, but really, she’s already achieved that. As a 12 time Grammy award winner, there’s not many souls who don’t know who Alicia Keys is. So the album is a bit confusing and off-putting to long time fans. While there are some salvagable performances and songs, the album largely runs together into an never-ending cascade of piano, loud vocals and feelings of deja-vu. The singles were precisely right on in the impression that they gave about this album — you either love it or hate it, but hopefully you love it, because it’s 13-14 songs of sameness.
Track-by-track review after the jump.
“Love is Blind”: Alicia is all Middle-Eastern vocal influences with whisps of Amy Winehouse vocal-style and Pat Benatar-esque choruses on this song. Alicia Keys has been listening to Sting basically. This is very different from “Teenage Love Affair” — leaps and miles away. There are any number of different forces creatively at work in this song, you almost want her to narrow it down a bit. An overly ambitious song, but it doesn’t NOT work either…
“Doesn’t Mean Anything”: Alicia goes back to her calling card on this single from the album — piano and vocals with some drums for the majority of the song. Vocally the song sounds a bit strained at time, as if she was holding back yet lacks the vocal control of her dynamics to truly give a stunning performance. The song itself is decently written however, though it does come off a bit “paint-by-the-numbers” as it comes to a close. Listen.
“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”: This song is also very 80’s in its influences with strains of Prince and again with the Pat Benatar/”Love Is A Battlefield” feel. Lyrically, the way the song shifts perspectives is a bit off-putting, but in and of itself, it’s a nice song. I’d like to hear Jordin Sparks or someone sing it that could truly bring out the dynamics of the song, because it feels as if Alicia is singing at level 8, then 10, then back to 8. The structure itself is very similar to “Doesn’t Mean Anything” musically…
“Wait Till You See My Smile”: Alicia is vastly pop on this album so far, and I don’t see the trend decreasing as of yet. This song is all power-pop and synths, again, like an 80’s song. It almost feels like an ode to Charlie Brown & Peanuts in the beginning, then morphs into this Coldplay-esque marching beat.
“That’s How Strong My Love Is”: This song immediately reminds me of “Diary”, one of her other hits. It’s either in the same key or shares some similar notes. As it progresses though, it sounds like “Doesn’t Mean Anything” at times too. It feels as if Alicia is simply rearranging herself on these songs. This song might be magic in someone else’s hands though, as it is actually a really nicely written joint. The strings seem a bit cliche though.
“Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” Feat. Drake: One of the few collabs on this record, you’re almost happy to hear Drake just for the promise of him breaking up the monotomy of the album thus far. This is Alicia’s version of Quiet Storm if you ask me, but it’s almost an immediate letdown. Best part of this song is the bridge, as the rest of the song feels half baked and not quite finished. Drake is reduced to background vocals, which is odd, and the rest of the song is left to Alicia’s interpretation telling us she’s “ready”. Well, ready for what?
“Love Is My Disease”: More attempts at hybrid pop/rock/vocals. It almost feels as if I can hear the Grammy categories Alicia Keys is trying to wedge herself into with some of these songs. The song is pretty straightforward lyrically, then Alicia switches it up and adds some reggae beats into the mix, which spice it up, but vocally, it’s a bit hard to hear as she is again at level 10 the whole song. She could never sing this live well in my opinion.
“Like The Sea”: Even though this song is “different”, it still feels like you’ve heard it before. The “love is like the sea” metaphor is nice though, but I feel as if Alicia’s performance isn’t convincing enough of how the struggle against the sea and its current and power isn’t delivered strongly. You can relate to the lyrics, but not the vocal.
“Put It In A Love Song” Feat. Beyonce': Her one “urban” sounding song — my how times change. And I don’t say that because at the beginning they have that ridiculous back & forth. “Ay yo B?!” “What up A?” I cannot. NO. The song itself is a bit juvenile too, and it’s like, this is the best you can do for a duet with Beyonce’? Gotta say Beyonce’ came in, killed it, and checked out too. Alicia takes bits of Bey’s syncopated dance breaks, video-ready and disappointingly so. The song itself largely goes nowhere and you’re left thinking “what was this?” Waste of a good collabo.
“This Bed”: Alicia finally finds some rhythm and hits a 2-step on this joint. Again, very much of a Prince influence. This could almost be a Sheena Easton song — I got strains of “Sugar Walls” personally. Alicia’s voice teeters on flatness the whole song as she stretches that vocal to its limits. Overall though, the groove is nice and funky and the lyrics are fun, beat appropriate and interesting. Could you imagine if Teena Marie in her heyday hit this joint up? Wow, that’d be even doper.
“Distance and Time”: This song feels like an almost-there attempt at power ballad, but it’s missing this unnamed element to really give it that bit of steam that would push it along. The lyrics are basic but would seemingly be more heartfelt if Element X was injected into this song. The single vocal with bits of harmony give it a little bit of an emotional reverberation though. This song might be better live, but again, it feels as if you’ve heard this before in some shape way or form from Alicia, be it this album or a previous one (or someone else’s?)…
“How It Feels To Fly”: This song needs some bass, some bottom. It also needs a different approach at the vocal, because it sounds like “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” in regards to that. The song itself is not bad, I actually like the sentiment behind it. It’s semi-inspirational and just like you’d guess — cue the Gospel choir. A little bit predictable, but enjoyable for the most part.
“Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down”: Do I really need to say anything about? LOL. Level 10 vocals, piano, Jay-Z, and at the end (the very end) she adds in some drums and stuff. You’ve heard this.