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Alicia Keys, ‘Girl on Fire’ (RCA)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: November 22, 2012
Label: RCA

With Girl on Fire, her fifth studio album since 2001, Alicia Keys officially joins the postmodern-R&B old school. Eleven years is a long time. With multiple Grammys, a James Bond theme song, and a Bob Dylan shout-out behind her, the newly married 31-year-old young mom might be excused for losing her hyper-ambitious eye of the tiger. But no: “I’m not who I was before,” she insists, later adding, “I never been this good, not ever.” Drawing a line in the sand between her pre- and post-motherhood/matrimony selves, she rededicates herself to a mastery of soul music that forges forward even as it echoes past masters.

“Brand New Me” lyrically sets the tone: an inspirational piano power ballad full of vocal echoes and Keys’ patented song-length crescendo, a.k.a, the Build — think the epic ascent of “Empire State of Mind (Part II).” “It took a long long time to get here / It took a brave brave girl to try,” she sings, spinning out a tale of women’s liberation that spends more time praising her own inner strength than blaming the lover who gets left behind. Girl on Fire, more musically subdued than 2009 predecessor Elements of Freedom, features the Build just this once — which, of course, makes that one instance all the more effective. Other ballads here have muscle (“Tears Always Win,” the Maxwell duet “Fire We Make”), but Keys wisely avoids turning her deadliest weapon into a cliché.

Elsewhere, her two-year-old son, Egypt, graces the end of the uptempo “When It’s All Over” (shades of Stevie Wonder’s newborn on “Isn’t She Lovely”). The Caribbean inflections of “Limitedless” introduce a welcome diversity. “Listen to Your Heart” sounds like smooth R&B meant to blend into the background at black beauty parlors. And “101” shares a title with an old Sheena Easton/Prince collab — as a melodramatic album closer, it’s up there with “Adore.”

Less of an anthemic, balls-to-the-wall affair than Elements of Freedom (still her strongest album overall), this one does have its own liberating, empowering charms. With worthy contributions from hubby Swizz Beatz, Dr. Dre, Rodney Jerkins, Babyface, Frank Ocean, and others, its quality isn’t really ever in question. But as the only female musician (sorry Beyoncé and Rihanna) standing at the vanguard of new-millennium R&B, Keys shoulders a little more responsibility when it comes to writing tunes that hold a candle to music from the icons of old. Fire keeps the flame alive.