PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Alicia Keys: The Element of Freedom

Alicia Keys tries on new styles, finds them ill-fitting, and makes the worst album of her career.

Alicia Keys

The Element of Freedom

Label: J
US Release Date: 2009-12-15
UK Release Date: 2009-12-15
Label Website
Artist Website

Listening to Alicia Keys' The Element of Freedom, you might think someone is playing a huge joke on you.

Gone is any inventive use of piano. Gone is the fire and the youthful exuberance that made song like "Fallin", "Heartburn", and "Karma" -- which remains the greatest song Alicia Keys has yet recorded -- some of the best songs of the decade. And gone is any subtlety or faith in her own interpretive vocal gifts to sell even the most banal material. And in their place are uninspiring, trendy electronica production, strident lead vocal performances, and banal lyricism.

This does not sound like the Alicia Keys we have come to know.

And that is no accident, even if it is startling. We are told right from the start that this album is a "risk", but that the "risk" of doing what she did before -- "remain tight and closed in the bud" -- was "more painful". Keys wants us to believe that she, an artist who has had arguably more creative control than any other Clive Davis protégé before her, was somehow trapped. Many soul music fans still wish Whitney Houston had been given the ability to write and produce her first album in 1985, like Keys was able to do with Songs in A Minor. And Keys would have us empathize with her feeling that her relative fortune was limiting in some way.

But that’s really not fair. Lauryn Hill wrote and produced her album and felt trapped as well, and we all pretty much understand how she feels. Why can’t Alicia Keys feel just as trapped in the image she herself created eight years ago?

She can, but this album gives me no sense that a nascent talent has "bloomed" into a full-fledged artist to be reckoned with. In fact, all this "blooming" that she’s doing on The Element of Freedom just sounds like adult contemporary schlock set to the latest trendy, melodramatic electronica production. And there is little to invite us to understand why she chose this genre or even what exactly this new "liberating" genre gets us, the listener.

Very few songs here live and breathe; the production is so overblown, and yet so formless that most of the songs plod along barely registering at all. There are no peaks or valleys, just sweeping instrumentation beating you over the head with whatever trite sentiment about love Keys happens to be singing about right then.

Standing out from the pack are "Love Is Blind", which is atmospheric, evocative, and rich, and "This Bed", which is as fun as it is sexy. Both songs stand head and shoulders above the rest of the album, rendering everything else worse in your mind than it already is. The former is the first song on the album and the latter comes toward the end. Their placement is unfortunate -- you won’t want to move on from "Love Is Blind" and you won’t really make it to "This Bed".

In truth there is nothing inherently wrong with Keys' decision to do this kind of music and approach it the way she has approached it. It may work for some people. But it really doesn’t play to her strengths at all. Her voice is capable of great force, yes, but force isn't where her voice is most expressive. In fact, she sounds so strained that she obliterates a pretty decent melody on "That’s How Strong My Love Is". A subtle vocal performance might have made that song truly soar. As performed, all that you really hear is a loud voice. In fact, when she shares a song with Beyoncé -- the contemporary queen of pointless bombast -- Keys' weakness in this arena is startingly apparent. Beyoncé completely steals the song away and Beyoncé fans will love it, even though it's a terrible song.

Black pop stars right now are so enamored of Europop, electronica, and emo. And I’m still not sure why. Or rather, I’m not sure they realize that they need to refigure their vocal performances to make songs of this type work. Trey Songz did it so effortlessly on "Black Roses", from his most recent album, and Ryan Leslie’s insubstantial voice actually works on his albums that it is surprising and disappointing that Alicia Keys has failed so spectacularly.

Keys is right -- this album was a risk. And there is something to be said for taking risks artistically. But she failed. The Element of Freedom is just really well-made elevator music. It’s boring, soulless, and pretentious. The industry likes it inasmuch as an Alicia Keys album makes a lot of people a lot of money. But make no mistake, this is the worst album of Alicia Keys' career.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.