Alicia Keys has gone through a lot of personal changes in recent years, and claims that Girl on Fire has been marketed as a heart-wrenching autobiographical album. While it might seem leaps and bounds more personal for Keys, and she has certainly matured lyrically, but the music throughout her fifth studio album remains the same. Her life may have changed, but this new album is not as revolutionary as claimed. It’s quality, but nothing new.
With her mastery of the piano and versatile vocals, she delivers her typical tracks that fans have come to love, mixing old-school soul vibes with a new-school rhythm. Pouring out her heart on to every track, Keys has always put artistry before commercial goals and label agendas. Since her release of The Element of Freedom in 2009, Keys has married rapper-producer Swizz Beatz and given birth to her now 2-year-old son, Egypt. The stability in her personal life is reflected in the music, as Keys sounds more at ease and more soulful than she ever has.
That said, Girl on Fire is just more of the same and Keys’ maturation over the past few years has not lead to drastic changes in her music as she claims. Self-empowerment and re-birth of self are themes weaved throughout the album, but it’s done in such a mainstream way that is unlike Keys. The generic titles of her songs could be used as buzz words for self-help books or group therapy: “Brand New Me,” “New Day,” and “Listen to Your Heart.” Keys aims for re-invention, but doesn’t go far enough. The album, as a whole, stops just short of being effective.
Keys does turn in a different direction in one sense, bringing a collection of collaborators on to the album. Odd Future’s Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars and outgoing U.K. star Emeli Sande are featured on the album, offering rock-solid vocal performances that complement Keys. Rap queen Nicki Minaj is even featured on the title track, adding a hard-hitting presence that you usually would never find on an album from Keys. These additions to the album are great for this regularly independent and hopefully Keys continues to open up to outside influence in the future.
Keys is an unforgettable performer, but she has the tendency to release forgettable albums. It’s hard to say right now how Girl on Fire will be received and go down in the books. Only time will tell. If you can, try to find a show and see her perform live, as recorded tracks will never do her justice.