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BBC – Music – Review of Alicia Keys

Written by on October 27, 2020

The Alicia Keys we find on Girl on Fire is much removed from how we left her on 2009’s The Element of Freedom, a rumination on the death of her grandmother and the break-up of a relationship.

For the first album of her 30s, Keys is now married (to producer-rapper Swizz Beatz) and the proud mother of a young son. And understandably, the record takes this as its centre.

For all its big beats and stellar collaborations (and there are many: Frank Ocean, Emile Sandé, Darkchild, Babyface and Salaam Remi to name a few), the core of the album is Keys’ remarkable voice and simple songwriting.

The tone is set by the piano introduction, a sombre reflective piece, and then the defiant, nose-thumbing Brand New Me which makes Keys’ stance clear when she sings: “It’s been a while, I’m not who I was before.”

Girl on Fire is classic Keys at her most commercial.  The beautiful, sensual Fire We Make, a duet with Maxwell, is all muted horns and synth bass, a textbook quiet storm. The more you hear this track, the deeper you fall in love with it.

Tears Always Win, co-written by Bruno Mars, is a convincing soul/gospel pastiche, played with a small band.

Not Even the King, written with Sandé, is probably the key track. Shorn of all bangs and crashes, it is a straightforward piano ballad, and although exploring the well-worn analogy of how being rich in love is better than all the world’s money (“Your arms around me / Worth more than a Kingdom”), it is strangely and sweetly affecting.

The credits say that Girl on Fire was “conceptualised and produced” by Keys. When you look at other artists of a similar ilk, you know that she hasn’t just dropped in to record with the latest producer.

As a result, Girl on Fire is a smart album, maintaining the high standards set on The Element of Freedom. It showcases her as a maturing performer and keeps her there or thereabouts alongside Beyoncé as the world’s leading contemporary stylist of mainstream RnB.

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This album is reviewed on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show on 3 December 2012

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