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Album Review: Alicia Keys - 'Girl on Fire'

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Album Review: Alicia Keys - 'Girl on Fire'
On her first album since she got married and had a child, R&B-pop superstar Alicia Keys sounds like the events in her personal life have greatly reinvigorated her. Alicia, who's been best known until now for power ballads like "Fallin'," "You Don't Know My Name" and "If I Ain't Got You," has come out swinging on her fifth studio album, Girl on Fire, with high energy songs like "New Day" and the title track. It could be that she's feeling empowered by becoming a mother for the first time, or perhaps it's her husband, hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz rubbing off on her, but Alicia clearly has a bolder, more aggressive attitude on the first half of this album. Girl on Fire, which was released Nov. 27, 2012 in the U.S., is somewhat a departure from the smoldering vibe her fans had become accustomed to.

Newly Bold

Although Alicia Keys' Girl on Fire kicks off with "De Novo Adagio (Intro)," a mellow, minute-plus piano instrumental that pays homage to her roots as a classical pianist it's not really indicative of the album's overall tone. It and the following song, "Brand New Me," serve as sort of bridges between the more restrained Alicia of times past and the newly bold version. But even "Brand New Me" foreshadows the oncoming storm. Although the song is largely typical of Alicia's past efforts musically -- beautifully precise piano playing, powerful yet restrained vocals and delicate instrumentation -- the song's lyrics are about breaking free of an overbearing person to find your true self. And at points, the music builds to a fierce crescendo before lowering and washing out like an outgoing tide.
There are a handful of other more restrained songs, such as "Listen to Your Heart," but even on this song, Alicia has a basic message: be bold and take a chance on love. "You never know until you try/Why so scared when hearts don't lie?/Turn off the world and close your eyes, lose yourself and listen to your heart," she sings. She also manages to create one of the best bedroom jams in years with Maxwell on "Fire We Make." The two singers' voices manage to work in perfect harmony, particularly since Max is deep within his element on the song. But despite it's softer, quieter moments, Girl on Fire pretty much lives up to its name.

Audio Treats

The album's title track, which features the rapper Nicki Minaj, is a hip-hop/pop hybrid tune that will undoubtedly serve as a personal anthem for many young -- and perhaps not so young -- women for years to come. "Looks like a girl, but she's a flame, so hot she can burn your eyes, better look the other way," she sings. "You can try, but you'll never forget her name, she's on top of the world, hottest of the hottest girls." A similar hip-hop anthem on the album is "New Day," an optimistic, sunny day song about feeling how the best moments of your life might still be ahead of you: "There's a feeling that I got that I can't give up, Feeling in my heart that I can't get over, I know that it's coming let the sun come up, Tell me do you feel the same," she sings.
Overall, Alicia's fifth studio album has more of an urgency than her previous releases. And although the musical passion of her past albums equals that which she displays here, on this album, the energy it carries is almost palpable. This is also an album deep with potential singles: songs like "Tears Always Win" and the oddly-titled "Limitedless" are beautifully constructed audio treats that manage to be radio-friendly without shamelessly pandering to pop music fans. Although this doesn't quite reach the creative heights Alicia rose to with her first couple of albums, it definitely outpaces her last two and is one of the best releases of 2012 overall.
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