- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Alicia Keys

The Element of Freedom

J Records

When Alicia Keys sings a song, she leaves no doubt where she’s coming from. Her bold, confident style communicates feeling without much in the way of hesitation or nuance. By turns, she comes across as angry, humbled, overwhelmed, needy, hurt — and triumphant.

Miss Keys sells her songs so effectively, in part, because she knows them so well. Unlike most top-selling contemporary R&B divas, she writes much of her own material. Something else is at work, too: an overriding musical confidence that makes even the least of the songs on “The Element of Freedom” a transporting experience.

The 12-time Grammy winner seems finally to have become enamored of the tricks of the studio. Her first efforts were notable for the emphasis on unadorned instrumentation - primarily her own piano playing but also rich, vibrant string parts and vocal harmonies. While piano is still crucial here, it seems less showoff-y and somehow more essential. She’s come a long way from the somewhat twee and exaggerated Beethoven allusions of her early work. But there’s also more in the way of electronica and even drum machine on some of the tracks. The funky guitar riffs and organ that characterized Miss Keys’ most recent album, “As I Am,” are replaced here with growling synth effects.

Still, Miss Keys remains effective in using the piano as a second voice, to impart mood and rhythmic drama. On the track “Like the Sea,” her little etudelike piano riffs evoke a kind of imperiled innocence. On “Wait Til You See Me Smile,” halting chords create a sense of impatience that eventually is resolved in an explosive crescendo. On “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” she uses minor chords to establish an undercurrent of regret that belies the whisper of hope in her voice.

The single “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” harks back to the late 1980s with its heavy drum and bass sound and salvos of old-school synth blasting throughout. The lovelorn lyrics are almost beside the point. There’s an uncanny cool at work here that recalls the singing style of Annie Lennox. It creates an epic contrast with the sound of “Love Is My Disease,” which is full of jagged edges and emotional desperation.

Two notable collaborations round out the album. Miss Keys finishes what she started on her hit duet with Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind.” There, she sang the triumphant chorus in between Jay-Z’s highly personal and minutely detailed rap verses about New York. But on “Empire State of Mind (Part II),” Miss Keys (who grew up in Manhattan) seems diminished by comparison, with a bland, generic vision of the city that lacks any of Jay-Z’s gritty specificity. However, an upbeat duet with Beyonce, “Put It in a Love Song,” packs all the punch that “Empire” is lacking.

“The Element of Freedom” is, in many ways, Miss Keys’ most mature album to date. While it lacks the sensuality and elegance of “The Diary of Alicia Keys” or the virtuoso vocals of “As I Am,” it has an intensity and a sense of danger that is compelling.

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