Considering The Element of Freedom is Alicia Keys‘ fourth studio album, thinking of her as anything but an established chart topper seems silly. However, remember back in the summer of 2001 when “Fallin'” came out and she sounded like nothing else on the radio? (Back then we still listened to the radio.) It was unabashedly soul and sounded like it came from the broken heart of a woman who had seen it all, not a 20 year old’s musical debut. Although Songs in A Minor ended up being a somewhat spotty album, her talent and ambition made clear the fact that Keys was an artist to watch. And for the last eight years we’ve watched her continue on her quest to blend soul with various genres with quite a bit of success.
Now that she’s no longer an ingénue and is now an established artist, what should we expect from Keys? The Element of Freedom suggest she’s not going to push boundaries as much as hone her skills and bring in a little of everything we’ve heard over the course of her career. While no single track is particularly daring, the album has a more diverse point of view than anything she’s previously done.
If you’ve heard “Doesn’t Mean Anything”, the album’s lead single, you’re probably not terribly impressed, and you shouldn’t be because it’s a by-the-numbers pop/R&B tune, especially for Keys. The first notable song on the album is “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart”, which is driven by a drum loop that sounds like the delayed rhythm of a train track. Keys keeps only raises her voice above a whisper when she unconvincingly sings, “I’m gonna find a way to make it without you / I’m gonna hold on to the times that we had, tonight”. The softness in her voice suggests she’s about to break down but refuses to in front of her ex. You’ll hardly find anything groundbreaking in the arrangement, especially when you notice Keys’ trademark piano work is absent, but a new level of maturity is evident in her delivery that proves she’s still pushing herself.
Admittedly, this reviewer has often found Beyoncé Knowles’ collaborations forced, so the prospect of she and Keys working together left me wary, at best. Turns out they make a fantastic pair. Each artist retains her style and together they make “Put It In a Love Song” an irresistible dance track that combines Knowles’ penchant for addictive beats with Keys’ knack for injecting a little soul into anything she does. The two deliver an ultimatum that dares their man to put his love in a love song or in a text message. It’s not a cliché battle of egos to see who can out-sing each other. In fact, their vocals are surprisingly restrained and Keys’ piano is used sparingly but effectively, especially for a dance track. If the song is released as a single by spring, expect to hear it in every club for the duration of summer.
Not everything on the album is gold. “This Bed” relies too heavily on a melody reminiscent of Fergie’s “Glamorous”, though it’s still a solid tune. “Distance and Time” has quite a bit of heart, but the arrangement is based on such a bland drum loop, you wish she’d just stripped the whole thing down to just her voice and piano.
Some tracks that do fare better are the ones that let her air her grievances. For whatever reason, Keys never sounds bitter or even pathetic when pining after a lover. Perhaps because she s willing to share some of the blame when things fall apart, as she does on “Love Is My Disease”, brings a little tribal rhythm into the mix and her own vocals act as a backing choir. “I try to act mature but I’m a baby when you leave / How can I ever get used to being without you?” is a simple statement but conveys enough maturity to make the track more than a broken-heart song and has a powerful drum breakdown when the line is spoken.
Then you get to the closer, “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down”, a simple but powerful reworking of a track she originally collaborated with Jay-Z on for his album The Blueprint 3. Jay-Z is a no-show on the track, but Keys doesn’t need any help. The echo that accompanies every bellow of “New York” sounds like Keys is in the middle of a cavernous, skyscraper-lined street. When the full band suddenly sounds off for a stanza near the end of the song, it feels like the album should just be starting. A new energy is injected into the song and Keys’ homage to the namesake city is realized. Then it’s over and the album feels like it went by too quickly.
Although The Element of Freedom doesn’t have the wow factor of her debut or the boundary pushing that the previous releases did, it is still a step in the right direction for Keys. When she does stretch herself, the results are exciting. When she plays it safe musically, she at least raises the bar for herself as a songwriter and vocalist. Even if the next album isn’t groundbreaking, Keys gives us good reason to think it will be another move toward maturity-and will include at least a few killer singles.