First Impressions: 'Element Of Freedom' Hits Middle Ground

Monday, December 14, 2009

Maybe I've been living in a misty mirage, but there has been a lot of people questioning the caliber of Alicia Keys' talent. I've seen it here and here...and yeah, here too. It's an almost bizarre accusation as Keys is the last person who I would call untalented, considering the fact that she's one of few mainstream artists who can put pen to paper and fingers to instrument. Especially in this day and age of fast tunes and fast moving rumps, Alicia Keys is that window of opportunity so to speak. Yet, some are questioning Keys artistry and how she's "soulless" and has become "too accessible" or has simply "lost her touch".

The cries of disgruntlement are understandable. Keys has been in a slight plight with her current musical output, as to me, she's been dancing around the primrose bush too much, not really pushing the envelope lately. Yes, the talent from the songwriting to the piano playing to her voice is still all there, but Alicia is settling into a groove that she's having a hard time crawling out of, and it showed with 2007's As I Am, which left little to be desired in my book. Then we had the lackluster duo of newest singles, "Doesn't Really Matter" and "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart", which were dropping hints of something bigger, but just didn't latch on. Still, we can't judge an album by two singles can we? Thus, we listen to Alicia's fourth installment, The Element of Freedom , in full.

Now onward with album number four, which has production credits from Jeff Bhasker, Swizz Beatz, and Peter Edge, Alicia experiments and expands on her sound, and it shows as notes of Prince, 80's rock arena anthems and Broadway-esque ballads shine through and the raw soul of Miss Keys from yesteryears is a distant memory. Musically, The Element of Freedom is regal. Wondrous symphonic elements done by slicing keyboards and instruments, thunder cloud rumbles of ballads and a few sprinkles of R&B smarts grace the 14-song tracklising. The lyrics are just as bold and seeping in romance and reflection of oneself. The ambitious starter, "Love Is Blind" begins things off mysteriously, as we can hear Alicia touching into 80's rock synths territory. This touch is also done again in the booming, "Wait 'Til You See My Smile" which quietly merges into the gorgeous climb of "That's How Strong My Love Is".

Standout "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)" has Alicia dipping into a more introspective mindset thus we get possibly the best cut on the album. No, scratch's the best song Alicia has put on a record since 2005. Surprisingly, Alicia Keys has rapper Drake to thank for this, as he provides background vocals and arranged the melodies. It has a gorgeous brooding backdrop and has Alicia looking inward putting her heart on her sleeve. Fantastic song.

Beyonce latches up with Alicia for "Put It In A Love Song", which puts some pep in the step and is a mighty fine uptempo cut. Skittish percussion, pounding piano keys and a catchy (if moronic) chorus spread over this foot stomper. But lo and behold, Beyonce doesn't splatter herself all over the place, melding nicely with Alicia, and actually proving that when she's subtle, she really does shine.
An 80's-esque production on the funky, "This Bed" is another standout and is the best constructed cut featured that actually shows Alicia stepping into a brand new pair of sparkly flats. She dons a Prince mindset fully on this one, yet somehow Alicia works it on out on her own accord.
Where 2003's Diary of Alicia Keys and As I Am, featured a rougher soul interior, The Element of Freedom, is glossier and more thematic, and a tapestry of ballads and moody mid-tempos. The album is a sure nod to wading into larger waters, yet Alicia Keys, on this, is just getting warmed up. Still, this is album number four, and Alicia shouldn't be warming up...she should be delivering and that's how Element doesn't quite reach expectations. Songs like the screeching, "Love Is My Disease" are uninspired while ballads like "Distance and Time" are good, yet just kind of sit in limbo after repeated listens.Where Element works in its glossy exterior and its hints at Alicia stepping out her comfort zone, there is still the feeling that there is something missing as few songs manage to rise to the occasion. Though a solid set of tracks reside here, some fans might be divided in what Alicia Keys is executing and what they want her to do. Even with some improvements, Alicia Keys touches down in the middle ground with Element, and cautiously, yet elegantly, spreads her wings.

Rating: 8.4/10
Release Date: December 15, 2009

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