Girl on Fire
Artist: Alicia Keys
Produced by: RCA Records
Reviewed by Mo Bear
As many people who know me know, I am a dedicated Alicia Keys fan. I don’t know her personally, but I know that she is brilliant—a musical genius. And from what I do know of her through what she portrays in her music, as well as her philanthropic quests and undertakings, I can only believe that she is a classic diamond in the rough. My goal here, though, is not to extol the greatness that is Alicia Keys, but to review her latest album, Girl on Fire. There’s been a lot of publicity surrounding this album, and she’s done a lot of promotion in the months leading up to and since it’s release on November 27th. And yes, I’m about 7 weeks late with this review (give me a break, I’m a full-time grad student!), but I assure you that I was very eager to very quickly purchase the album on its release date, and I can’t think of a better way I could have spent those 8 bucks.
Girl on Fire is Alicia Keys’ 5th studio album (not including her Unplugged, nor her recent re-release of Songs in A Minor), and it feels like an ode to her debut album, Songs in A Minor, which many fans would argue was her at her purest, rawest, and most visceral—where she came out and in essence redefined what it means to be a true R&B artist in a retrospective sound with a modern twist. At the foundation, the musical stylings of Alicia Keys has remained the same over the years, although it has gone through some iterations, giving each album a different feel, different vibe, different mood—as she has matured and evolved as an artist, a woman, and human being, so has her music. The sound of Girl on Fire, is very purposely driven by the piano (which is an overarching element throughout her musical repertoire, but one we haven’t seen as much of since Songs in A Minor), and that’s what the fans love her most for. It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous, it also doesn’t hurt that she has a beautiful voice—but the fact that she is a classically trained pianist and that she utilizes that talent and training so proficiently is what differentiates her and makes her special from all these other singers out here who are also gorgeous with beautiful voices. She’s the full-package musician. They are not.
In the introduction, “De Novo Adagio," we get that raw, naked piano solo that we love so much and have grown to expect from Alicia, and it spills into the piano-laden “Brand New Me." From there, the album runs the gamut from beautiful soulful ballads, to upbeat club-bangers, to girl-power/human-power anthems. There’s a lot of variety here, and not just in the sounds and moods, but also in the emotions—she’s definitely in a different place in her life than she was before, and she lets us know it. One of the things that I like most about Girl on Fire is that, while the musical arrangements of her most recent albums were very busy and processed, here she keeps the sound very pure and the arrangement simple—there are even beats of quiet in the chords that just don’t exist in her other albums; she seems to have learned (or re-learned) that less is more, and it makes for an incredible and invigorating listening experience.
Something that truly distinguishes Girl on Fire from her previous work is that this is a much happier Alicia Keys. When she first debuted over a decade ago, there were darker angst-ridden undertones to her music, and that generally remained the undercurrent to her sound up through The Element of Freedom, but this is a lighter, happier Alicia Keys and she wants to sing it from the rooftops and let the whole world know it! Even when she’s singing about darker subjects here (like inevitable death in “When It’s All Over”, lost love in “One Thing”, and potential betrayal in “101”), she sounds gleeful. But she does it in a way where it doesn’t sound absurd (I told you earlier, the woman is a genius).
The only thing I wish was different about the compilation is her choice of version to include for the album’s title track, “Girl on Fire”. Nicki Minaj, though, AK? Really?? Personally, I bought the non-Minaj version (thank God there’s two to choose from) and swapped it in on my playlist. Problem fixed. AK forgiven.
And while the whole album has been on incessant repeat on my iPod since its debut, my personal favorite on extra heavy rotation: "When It’s All Over". There’s only one word I can think of to describe it: beautiful.