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Music Review | Alicia Keys underwhelms with new album

‘Girl on Fire’s’ generic sound robs Keys of her talent.

Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 08:12

In the three years since her last album, Alicia Keys has married producer Swizz Beatz and had her first child. Those kinds of major life events usually inspire artists to create personal and profound works. Unfortunately, Keys’ new album, “Girl on Fire,” is surprisingly insipid and mundane despite Keys’ phenomenal vocal abilities. The entire album seems resigned to flood bland adult−contemporary stations without much desire to excite or rouse anything in listeners.

It’s a shame that Keys, once known for her fierce, soulful voice, could make a project this dull. On Keys’ debut record, “Songs in A Minor” (2001), using just her voice and a simple piano she was able to set tracks ablaze with her fury and deep−seated emotions. With “Girl on Fire,” Keys has lost that flame.

The album’s entire production, while never flat out bad, is completely forgettable. The tunes can be enjoyable at times, but they never go beyond the types of songs they are trying to be. The album has the “anthem” and the “emotional ballad,” but “Girl on Fire” plays it so by the books that it all sounds hollow.

Keys still has an incredible vocal range and should still be recognized as one of the best voices of her generation, which makes it all the more disheartening that she would waste her considerable talents on these songs. While the album plays, listeners are likely to wonder where the woman who just three years ago could make skyscrapers shake on “Empire State of Mind” (2009) has gone. That kind of heart is noticeably absent on this release.

The record’s lyrics don’t do much to save these weak productions either. The lines play in the shallow end of the pool, never diving into real emotion. “Girl on Fire” seems content with cliches and trite statements rather than anything that might elicit real feeling from the tracks. Nothing here has the honesty or openness of Keys’ best−penned songs like “Fallin’” (2001) or “You Don’t Know My Name” (2003).

The song “When It’s All Over” is a good stand in for the many flaws of the record. The track spits out some generic lines about Keys following her heart and being glad she had found love. While the song has a slight jazzy vibe, nothing about it seems to stick. The melody just moves in and out of the listener’s ears without making an impact. It’s a song that’s meant for a long elevator ride at work, a song that drowns itself out.

At the end of the song, Keys starts a cute conversation with her son, Egypt. While that would seem personal and a nice little touch for the record, something about Keys’ voice in the conversation projects and enunciates too much. For a second, it feels like she’s just saying everything because she was told to do so in a studio booth rather than projecting the image of an actual conversation with her son. It comes off as slightly manipulative and is just another way that the whole album feels forced and superficial.

The title track and first single, “Girl on Fire,” doesn’t fare much better. The song tries so hard for stomping, girl−power anthem status that it comes off as standard. The lyrics never say anything more than that this girl is on fire, and it’s difficult to imagine any female hearing this actually being empowered. Keys should take notes from Beyoncé next time she wants to make a stadium−song like this because “Girl on Fire” lacks any sort of spirit behind it. Even a Nicki Minaj verse can’t save this song from its own banality.

In the past, Alicia Keys has made some truly standout albums. On “Girl on Fire,” she blends into the background. With her golden voice, it shouldn’t be hard for Keys to come back in a few years with another truly great record again, especially if she uses “Girl on Fire” as a reference for exactly what not to do.

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