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Alicia Keys delivers sparks of brilliance in Girl on Fire

Alicia Keys is back after a three-year hiatus - but does her music really head in new directions?

Alicia Keys

Girl on Fire

(Sony)

•••

 

Alicia Keys has never been one to push buttons or ruffle feathers. Since her 2001 breakthrough debut Songs in A Minor, the meek songbird has built her career making comfortably mild R&B and maintaining a dispassionately neutral image.

After a three-year hiatus, Keys is back and determined to prove that she is a changed woman. Armed with a stark new haircut and a track-list filled with emancipation anthems, Keys rises from the ashes of her compliant past with Girl on Fire.

Brand New Me is Key's declaration of her independence: "It's been a while/I'm not who I was before," she sings over delicate piano notes on the Emeli Sandé-penned track. Much talk ensues about how she's stronger and wiser than ever before, which does nothing but leave us waiting with bated breath for the evidence. The emancipation-proclamation continues on the single New Day, a drum-heavy rebirth anthem with a big chorus that is a welcome torrent of energy to the otherwise relaxed vibe of the album.

The title track, a female-empowerment canticle featuring two tedious rap verses from Nicki Minaj, possesses a disappointing lyrical stiffness that crops up a few times on this disc.

Putting the disappointing moments aside, Girl on Fire also possesses the undeniable brilliance that is more befitting of a musical powerhouse who has won 14 Grammys.

The smoky Fire We Make featuring Maxwell is one of those sonic gems. On this Prince-esque falsetto collaboration, Maxwell's and Keys's voices glide deliciously over lyrics that are laden with emotion and dripping with neo-soul.

One Thing is absolute aural perfection and hands down one of the finest cuts this album has to offer. Keys's voice is more emotive than ever on this masterpiece of audio relaxation, evidently written with the help of the amazing Frank Ocean; the lyrical depth and tragic beauty of this track are very similar to some of the songs on his stellar summer opus Channel Orange.

On Not Even the King, Keys expounds on the age-old adage that money doesn't buy happiness. Through lavish imagery of crowns, horses and castles, Keys sings about a love so immense that it trumps material things and monetary value. Keys is at her vocal and lyrical best on this genuine and touching song that is the metaphorical cousin of her 2004 existential love ballad If I Ain't Got You.

What is meant to be Keys's most telling and personal album yet may have you feeling as if you are listening at arm's length at certain points; the songs are expressive, but guarded to a certain degree.

However, flashes of musical genius and unadulterated talent compensate for the album's uninspiring moments. Girl on Fire is a decidedly lukewarm attempt at reinvention that sees her merely flickering as opposed to ablaze.

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