Take a gander at the visual spectacle that is Alicia Keys on her sizzling album cover for Girl On Fire. The 31-year-old piano-playing diva intensifies her signature buttoned-up, classy flare, with an edgy cut, smoldering glare and model-esque pose. The cover exudes a youthful vigor her 30+ aged R&B contemporaries cannot display.
One question the smoking cover ignites is: will the content of the music reflect its architect’s fiery exterior? According to Keys, everything that was considered “the standard from [her has] been removed,” and she has “arrived at a place [where she’s] comfortable being exactly who [she is] with no reservations”–sentiments that echo those of her 2009 LP, The Element of Freedom.
Prior to ‘Freedom’, Alicia was irrefutably a dependable hit maker. “Fallin’,” “You Don’t Know My Name” and “No One” were supported by equally exceptional follow-up singles and album cuts. On ‘Freedom’, Alicia put her familiar bluesy R&B, old-school soul and arena-style compositions aside for “poppier” arrangements. The lyrics still reflected love, spirituality and vulnerability, but the sound was vastly different.
Overall, the concept was a bit scrambled, all thanks to the awkward icebreaker “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” lyrically cliché “Wait Til You See My Smile” and overvalued “Put It In A Love Song.” Like any puzzle, the emotional opus took patience to piece together.
Unfortunately, before the world could recognize the brilliance behind the album’s dark horses, “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “Distance and Time,” or understand the experimental numbers, “Love Is Blind,” “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” and “This Bed,” the negative criticism was already rampant and had curved the perception of listeners. Not even the flawless “Unthinkable (I’m Ready),” soul-stirring “Love Is My Disease” or epic closer (of the standard edition) “Empire State of Mind (Part II)” could save the slow-burning LP.
Witnessing a highly decorated and musically inclined artist present a body of work that was not only incomprehensible (for the average listener), but also lacked hits, was quite discouraging–especially during a time when formulaic producers were helping generic singers thrive. ‘Freedom’ wasn’t as liberating as Alicia had hoped.
In a recent blog post, the 14-time Grammy winner referred to herself as a ‘caged lion’ prior to Girl On Fire. “I felt like a girl misunderstood that no one really knew,” she writes. Clearly the perplexity of ‘Freedom’ didn’t bring the masses any nearer of understanding Keys. Girl On Fire will likely depict graspable growth embedded in unconventional chart-toppers, an element ‘Freedom’ fell short of communicating.
Keys has “claimed control of her destiny” and is genuinely confident with the music she has crafted (and is crafting) for Girl On Fire. She wants to make sure the music isn’t underrepresented (like that of her contemporaries), so for the first time in her career, she invited label executives (that are plagued by watered-down music daily) inside her intimate creative process to form a sincere connection with the music she has produced. Hopefully this helps them see beyond the business aspect of music, which has become the norm.
“I just wanted to remind everybody that at one point in our lives we were changed by music to such a degree, that it became a passion to the point that there is nothing else that we could possibly do in our lives,” she poetically expresses in a vlog.
Keys will release the “powerful and infectious” first single and title track on September 4th, followed by a performance at the MTV VMAs on the 6th. Krucial, Babyface, Jeff Bhasker, Pop and Oak, Emeli Sandé and Jamie xx are among the confirmed contributors of the album. ‘Fire’ is laced with Alicia’s “trademark piano” and is “sonically broadened by heavy drums, electric sounds, reggae and future soul.”
Mark your calendars, boys and girls; the proper ‘Emancipation of AK’ is happening on November 27th.
Sheena Easton was indeed ahead of her time.