I’ve spent a good amount of time over the last week with Alicia Keys’ new record Girl On Fire. Probably too much time based on the return I received. I’ve always held her in a slightly higher regard than most of her pop radio counterparts because she is genuinely more talented than everyone around her. It’s curious, then, that I’ve never really connected with her music. I remember a decade ago I was listening to “Fallin'” basically on repeat for days because I couldn’t believe how good it was. I totally got caught up in the hype surrounding the classically trained pianist turned star. But listening to Girl On Fire and thinking back over all the records she’s put out over the years, what has Alicia Keys really given us?
Greg Kot, surprisingly, wrote a really good piece about this same thing over the weekend (we had the same thoughts, but he beat me to it and made them more concise). At every possible turn she has taken the safer, mainstream route instead of trying something new or different. She generally kicks off her records with a virtuosic piano piece and then immediately denies the possibility of expounding on it by cranking up the bass and banality. It’s maddening as a fan of music to sit back and watch her squander her ability. It’s as if she’s the same kid growing up in the hood embarrassed by her talent.
We’ve never really got the opportunity to know who Alicia Keys is. She works with multiple songwriters and producers, so any possibility of making a real, personal album is out the window. The closest we ever got to hearing the real Alicia was on “If I Ain’t Got You” off The Diary Of Alicia Keys. And even that is kind of a swing at a Whitney Houston impression. I don’t know why it is that Keys doesn’t trust her own voice. I don’t even have a good (or funny) guess.
So, I have to admit that I think the song “Girl On Fire” is a good one. Or at least, part of it is a good song. The vocal performance Keys gives it is phenomenal, but it’s ruined by a completely unnecessary rap by Nicki Minaj. The radio version doesn’t feature Minaj, but the album doesn’t offer this alternative. Minaj’s lyrics don’t serve the song, and her voice is grating. It would be a great anthem of female empowerment if it were just Keys singing “She’s livin in a world and it’s on fire. Fillin with catastrophe, but she knows she can fly away.” The addition of asinine lyrics like this are a distraction from the song’s core message: “Do you fear God, because I fear God. In my back yard, thats a deer God, And that’s a horse ranch. And to my core fans, keep reppin me, do it to the death of me. X in the box cuz ain’t nobody checkin me.”
I guess that’s really an illustration of Keys whole career. Always adding things that she doesn’t need to cover up her own creative voice. It’s disheartening to think that someone this talented would be afraid to just go it alone once and see where it takes her. Left to her own devices I think Keys could make an album that would really knock everyone’s socks off. As it stands we’ll just continue to get more bland radio-friendly garbage that sounds nice in an elevator or at the grocery store.
This album features collabs with Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars, jamie xx, Emeli Sande, and Maxwell. All of whom would have been better off working on their own music. Ocean can’t recreate what he did for Beyonce with “I Miss You,” and jamie xx’s production doesn’t really fit with Keys’ style. In all the album feels like a collection of loosely connected songs cobbled together by a team working to water down the abilities of everyone involved. If that was the intention, then well done.