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Grammy-award winning singer Alicia Keys released her first album in three years, Girl on Fire, Tuesday. As of late, Keys has celebrated considerable life changes, including the birth of her first son Egypt, now 2, and marriage to hip-hop music producer Swizz Beatz.
These changes have transferred into her style and her music, most visibly through her new, sleek bob haircut and the album’s heavy dose of triumphant ballads, including the leading single “Girl on Fire.” Keys looks to contemporary artists like Frank Ocean, Miguel, and Bruno Mars for album collaborations to add a modernization to her classic R&B sound.
Some critics praise the album’s fiery sounds, while others claim Girl on Fire has yet to ignite:
Andrew Hampp of Billboard comments that, “It all gels impressively well on Girl on Fire, her fifth and arguably most consistent album to date. Low on the filler that bogged down albums like 2003’s Diary of Alicia Keys and more sonically adventurous than 2007’s As I Am, Girl on Fire explores love past and present with a triumphant mood that prevails throughout. It’s equally concerned with settling the score with a few former flames as it is with celebrating her wedded bliss with her new husband, thus saving it from schmaltz. You know it’s a good sign of a strong album when the singles (‘New Day’, the Nicki Minaj-assisted track) are among the weakest songs.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ Mikael Wood isn’t a fan of the album’s familiar sound. “In spite of that fresh blood, Girl on Fire basically delivers the same payload as Keys’ other albums; it’s a collection of handsomely crafted, gorgeously sung ballads interrupted by several overworked anthems about the value of perseverance. The familiarity of that formula doesn’t diminish ‘Tears Always Win,‘ a Motown-crinkly lament that Keys cowrote with Bruno Mars, or the folky, Babyface-produced ‘That’s When I Knew.‘ Nor does it take away the spacey loveliness of ‘Listen to Your Heart,‘ Which John Legend helped pen. But there’s something so typical about the booming title track and ‘New Day‘ — both of which feel cut from the same cloth as ‘No One‘ and ‘Doesn’t Mean Anything‘ — that it’s hard to hear what Keys is trying to tell us.”
Ben Ratliff of The New York Times writes: “Girl on Fire, Alicia Keys’s fifth album, has two modes: lofty and submerged. Guess which one leads to better songs? … The subtext of Girl on Fire, full of collaborations with other singer-songwriters, is that marriage and motherhood have given her new freedom, confidence and momentum. But it’s a measure of how powerful parenthood really is that it generates so many clichés. The new songs that push that subtext out front — which include the album’s singles, the ballad ‘Brand New Me’ (one of three self-actualizing, semi-autobiographical narratives written with the Scottish songwriter Emeli Sandé) and the preening title song, laid over the drum thwack of Billy Squier’s ‘Big Beat’ — quickly grow trite, in words and music. They have no mystery. They’re the songs least suggestive of reinvention.”
Melinda Newman at Hitfix, praises both the classic and experimental sounds: “The album is at its most melodic and commercial when Keys steps away from the empowerment theme (though she does that as well as anyone) and sings straight ahead love songs with a softness and vulnerability that is tremendously appealing. The two champions here are ‘Fire We Make,‘ a sultry, sexy slow jam with Maxwell (and guitar work by Gary Clark Jr.) that sizzles on a low flame, and “Tears Always Win,” which sounds like it could have been on “Songs” or 2003’s The Diary of Alicia Keys. Keys delivers a soulful old-school R&B ballad about missing her man. It’s easy to imagine Amy Winehouse singing the track, which Keys co-wrote with Bruno Mars and the Smeezingtons. The lovely stripped down “Not Even the King,” which features Keys quietly accompanying herself on piano, is another highlight.
Allison Stewart of Washington Post says, “Girl sands down the edges of Keys’ nobility, but even at its most venomous, it doesn’t bite — it nibbles like an angry kitten. Its real pleasures lie in its subtle updating of her familiar, diaristic piano ballads, its incorporation of vaguely modern bats (like the woozy ‘When It’s All Over,’ with nonspecific chill-out tent noises courtesy of Jamie xx), and distinctive, martial percussion. But Girl can’t perform miracles, and it may have erred in placing Keys, Version 2.0 in the proximity of the perpetually smoldering R&B star Maxwell. He sets the otherwise mild bedroom jam ‘Fire We Make’ ablaze just by showing up.”
Huffington Post‘s Cristina Jaleru comments, “The Grammy winner’s voice feels unstoppable and free, channeling the martial pop of Beyonce on ‘New Day,’ the romantic flourishes of Toni Braxton on the Maxwell-assisted ‘Fire We Make’ and the bewitching auditory imagery of Tori Amos on the album’s grand finale, ‘101.’ Nicki Minaj adds her brand of edge to the title track and lead single, while Keys’ toddler, Egypt, pulls an adorable coda on the jazzy industrial ‘When It’s All Over.’ Girl on Fire feels organically fed with inspiration, from the drops of light of ‘Listen to Your Heart’ to the weird urban sounds of ‘Tears Always Win’ to the funky reggae riffs of ‘Limitless.’ Keys is on fire, and burning all the competition. Pun intended.”
Christina Lee at Idolator remarks, “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.”
She later calls the album fitting to Keys’ new style, “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.”
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