Albums You Must Own Number 10 – Girl On Fire by Alicia Keys
When I was asked to write a few reviews for the ‘Albums You Must Own’ section of the site, immediately Alicia Keys‘ sophomore effort ‘The Diary Of Alicia Keys’ shouted to me; however I have recently listened to her newest album ‘Girl On Fire’ which for me is the most triumphant body of music the singer has ever released.
In true Alicia Keys style, the album starts on a reflective piano-only intro this time titled ‘De Novo Adagio’ which slowly moves from mid range piano to the highest bars. The rich, simple sound is the best way to open an album and it ends slowly on higher notes which are more exciting and uplifting than ending on a deep, heavy chord.
‘Brand New Me’ follows the intro with more high notes as it merges both album tracks together in a small crossover period. Then the singer says “It’s been a while, I’m not who I was before”. This being the first line from a new album which has seen a very long time distance from the last record, only makes you excited ad hyped up about what road it ‘Girl On Fire’ takes us on. It’s almost like a vocal intro which Keys has never attempted properly before.
As the song continues, it develops by adding bass, strings and a drum kit to the mix. Slowly these elements become emphasised and following ‘Empire State Of Mind’ we find Alicia maximising drums to the best she can. Then she hits a climax and explodes as everything is released from the drum kit to the strings, in a quick burst to destroy the cliche ballad you would think the song would be.
The next song is known to be a favourite of Alicia Keys, as she samples the voice of her son Egypt and is called ‘When It’s All Over’. It starts of with a bashing of drums and a rigid bass and eventually the piano which is mandatory on every track from the singer is heard with her vocals. On the track interesting pads and synths which you wouldn’t associate with the singer are used very subtly and when the cutoff is at its highest in the chorus is when the track peaks. A steady bassy-drum keeps everything together when different synth samples are used and adds some calm ‘continualitiy’ but doesn’t harm the outside of the box approach. The album is one of the best on the album as she steps out of her cliche and reaches a whole new level showing he growth as an artist. The use of sampling Egpyt also shows that Keys is now a new-found risk taker in her music which overall makes her album fresher sounding.
A R&B/Soul beat follows with a melting and some very bass heavy drums that overall sound like ‘Thinkin Bout You’ which is one of Frank Ocean‘s best singles. Her vocals in the track are very calm which is a juxtaposition to the up-tempo track and work perfectly with the bass. It is the most computerised sound on the album but shows how well she experiments with the future of her genre and again keeps us on this path which we can now see as Alicia Keys describing her growth and evolution.
Big, booming drums, loud horns and another different bass synth fires up in ‘New Day’. A party anthem which has a soulful twist and manages to blend street with upper class together in the right proportions. The cut, is produced by her husband, Swizz Beatz and has such rhythm that its hard not to like. Alicia goes in with a party attitude but doesn’t lose her classiness which most pop stars (eg. Rita Ora) so easily lose. From start to finish the little twists done in production make it a great mark for Alicia and how versatile she has become.
The albums lead single, which is named after the album is right in the centre, almost like the centrepiece to look out for. Nicki Minaj offers some of her real rapping on the track but doesn’t steal the limelight which makes the balance great for Alicia Keys. The powerful drums are hypnotising and powerful but the vocals in the track are what bring it alive. Alicia reaches higher highs than ever before but still keeps her voice loud and powerful which can give goosebumps to anyone. The lyrical content is also very smartly written as she references everything from drugs to upcoming in metaphors.
The albums first real mid-tempo beat follows the explosive centrepiece. In ‘Fire We Make’, she teams up with Maxwell who adds some great chemistry to the track. The pair work well together as they show off their most seductive voices. The pace of the track has a nice refreshing feel and while it is a breather from the powerful hits in the first half, the pair slowly lose their breaths as the story progresses. A guitar solo which adds time and space for the listener to make up the ending is the outro which is becoming evermore popular in music.
A more uplifting sense is made in the next song ‘Tears Always Win’ as a light piano riff starts off the track. Then a regular, quirky drum beat settles with a lot of echo and reverb. The vocals are also very light-hearted and not too serious making it very open and a pleasant song which will put a smile on your face whilst reminding you of summer.
A piano-only song ‘Not Even The King’ is next and it is one of the best in the album. After all the experiments on the first half, Alicia Keys brings us back to why we all fell in love with her music. The piano side by side with her lullaby vocals work amazingly well. She sings about how her love is priceless which we saw her sing about on ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ previously in the past. ‘Not Even The King’ is a eye-opener with a true, heartfelt message that you can sense from the tone of her voice. This is the compulsory listen from the 13 track album.
Acoustic guitars and drums are used on ‘That’s When I Knew’ and Alicia sings about her past. Again it’s another track which uses her old formula of using live instruments but doesn’t lose excitement. Her vocals shine once again and because they are simply pitch-perfect, they take the centre stage.
After two classic Alicia Keys songs she livens things up with ‘Limitedless’. Starting of with a guitar solo which is joined by some great heavy drums and wavy bass. Alicia tries her best Caribbean accent on some of the song and she pulls it off woot making it sound corny. The song has a very rhythmic, blues vibe to it and is instantly a ‘dancer’ track. The songs title ‘Limitedless’ adds to the accent and Caribbean vibe but also show that she herself is not limited when it comes to writing material again as she manages to showcase another fresh sound.
‘One Thing’ is a slow, R&B, live beat which is reflective. The use of panning with a piano and guitar is smart and the bass makes sure that the two aren’t severe eaten fully. The regular beat is what then turns it to the R&B jam it is because it adds a movement to hit.
‘101’ is one of the best endings to an album I’ve ever heard – ever. It starts off with a classic Alicia Keys-piano pairing. Her vocals are echoed which adds mystery to this ending. The piano changes its volume along side her vocals to emphasise and keeps you on your feet while you listen. Then it gradually fades out after a loud final chorus ending on a piano which slowly echoes into the distance.
However this is not the ending.
After a few seconds, a piano riff opens up and a string section joins it with horns. Then the biggest drums heard on the album explode with some crazy guitars and synths as she belts out ‘Hallelujah’ in the most jazzed up, explosive ending to an album I’ve ever seen. Just proving she’s full of surprises, she’s going to be back and most importantly she’s evolved into this empowering character.
Review by Bally Athwal