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.