Back then, Keys was a genre-bending newcomer, much like the collaborators she’s enlisted for Girl On Fire, including Jamie xx, Frank Ocean and Emeli Sande. What’s most exciting her latest offering is how Keys isn’t a girl, but rather a still-compelling veteran at age 31, this time veering mostly in the opposite direction of trends.
Here’s why: When Keys recorded the demos for Girl On Fire, she suddenly realized that the less instrumentation and production she piled into a recording, the more room her voice would have to expand and stretch. The album’s most thunderous tracks — “New Day” without Game, the title track even with Nicki Minaj — are anchored by little else but a big beat and her bigger voice. Both songs are proof that, after “Empire State Of Mind,” Keys only requires a powerful hook to command attention. Girl On Fire‘s production may not be as varied as that of her previous efforts, but it does highlight the singer’s biggest strength: setting a mood.
As a trade-off, though, Keys is now singing tighter, and comes off less cliché-ridden about love and heartbreak. “Tears Always Win” is a short but sweet example of how Motown-inspired songwriting can create cheery music out of torn emotions, as co-writer Bruno Mars previously demonstrated in Cee-Lo Green‘s “F**k You.” “One Thing,” which Frank Ocean co-wrote, bears just enough specificity to make the song’s central heartbreak feel like hers, from a quick glance at her house to the conclusion: “You’re too good to finish life here with me.”
More than anything, Girl On Fire‘s back-to-basics ballads emphasize that if the greats once approached songs this way, then so can Alicia Keys. One unnecessary low point is Nicki Minaj’s throwaway verse in the title track’s “Inferno” version —unfortunately, the one included here. Making up for that is “Listen to Your Heart,” in which Keys simply creates a mantra of the song’s title to a relaxed groove. The resulting luminescence immediately recalls Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On.” The album’s true highlight is “Fire We Make,” where tension slowly builds between a quivering Keys and Maxwell‘s elated falsetto, and leads to a searing guitar solo by Gary Clark, Jr.
Despite all of its enlisted collaborators, Keys’ fifth album operates much like Adele‘s 21, a mainstream effort harkening back to a time when soul music was little more than a singular voice. Such an approach certainly could have worked for Keys at age 20. But here on Girl On Fire, this approach also works for Keys with who she is now.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single (Especially Given The Terrible Rap By Thee Former Queen Of Guest Verses, Nicki Minaj): Either “Tears Always Win” or “When It’s All Over” would make for logical next singles.
Pops Like: It was written at the same time as Aretha Franklin‘s 1972 album Young, Gifted And Black. (Franklin, who wrote “All The King’s Horses,” would certainly approve of Keys’ approach to “Not Even The King.”)
Best Listened To: At a family gathering.
Idolator Rating: 3.5/5
— Christina Lee