Alicia Keys’ ‘Girl on Fire’: The Reviews Are In

MTV VMAs: Alicia Keys
The singer performed with Nicki Minaj and Gabby Douglas.
Alicia's 'Girl on Fire'
The singer unveils the video for her hit single.
After three years of silence, Alicia Keys is soaring back onto the music scene as the Girl on Fire.

On her fifth studio album — which hit shelves Tuesdays — the Grammy winner introduces her self-proclaimed new identity. “It’s been a while. I’m not who I was before,” she croons on “Brand New Me,” her second single from the collection. “It’s just a brand new kind of me. Can’t be bad — I found a brand new kind of free.” (For the song’s full lyrics, go to Direct Lyrics.)

Girl on Fire seems a reflection on Keys’ last few life-changing years — which saw her wed hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz and welcome now 2-year-old son, Egypt. On her first post-marriage and post-motherhood disc, Keys collaborates with a number of other singer-songwriters — including Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, Jamie xx and Emeli Sandé — to create a range of sounds, from radio-ready tracks to piano ballads to midtempo soul songs.

So is Keys really blazing new ground with Girl on Fire? While some reviewers wish the ever-talented Keys would take more risks or strip down to more raw emotions, many praise the singer’s 13-track record — which Rolling Stone calls “one of the best R&B records of 2012.”

See what the critics are saying:

Washington Post: “She’s a mild, unforgettable talent who makes mild, forgettable albums and who has historically relied on guest artists such as Jay-Z for supplementary personality. On Girl, Keys’s first release post-marriage (to the disc’s co-producer, Swizz Beatz) and post-motherhood, she’s found her footing — and her backbone — at last.”

The Huffington Post
: “Girl on Fire comes on hard and fast, seemingly stripped but rich in sound, triumphant to the point of a cinematic epic scope…. [It] feels organically fed with inspiration, from the drops of light of ‘Listen to Your Heart’ to the weird urban sounds of ‘Tears Always Win’ to the funky reggae riffs of ‘Limitless.’ Keys is on fire, and burning all the competition. Pun intended.”

Idolator: “Despite all of its enlisted collaborators, Keys’ fifth album operates much like Adele’s 21, a mainstream effort harkening back to a time when soul music was little more than a singular voice. Such an approach certainly could have worked for Keys at age 20. But here on Girl On Fire, this approach also works for Keys with who she is now.”

Vancouver Sun: “It’s a disc that should delight both neo-soul fans and old-school Atlantic Records fetishists…. Given the commercial destination of the disc, it’s particularly satisfying that Keys declines to grandstand, letting humanity rule her voice most of the time instead of technique. Equally refreshing is that, true to form, she is selling her art and not T&A…. Maybe soul music isn’t dead after all.”

Atlanta Journal Constitution: “In the three years since her last album, the lukewarm The Element of Freedom, she’s grown up at the most basic levels – by getting married (to rapper/producer Swizz Beatz) and having a son (Egypt, now 2). Those two major life changes obviously had an effect on her outlook and, consequently, her songwriting, which helps make her fifth album, Girl on Fire, a confident rainbow of sounds…. It’s immediately apparent that marriage and motherhood haven’t diluted her strong-woman stance.”

Boston Globe: “In truth, on Girl on Fire, the R&B songstress picks up right where she left off on 2009’s underrated The Element of Freedom. The difference is that Keys has rarely ever sounded so at ease, so downright sensual, as she does as her latest…. The album is stuffed with special guests…but really you can’t divert your ears from the magic Keys conjures on her own at her piano. Her voice, which has grown coarser and more knowing in recent years…. [The album] is less about the flame and more about what happens when you get too close to it.”

The New York Times: “The subtext of Girl on Fire, full of collaborations with other singer-songwriters, is that marriage and motherhood have given her new freedom, confidence and momentum…. But it’s a measure of how powerful parenthood really is that it generates so many clichés. The new songs that push that subtext out front — which include the album’s singles, the ballad ‘Brand New Me’ (one of three self-actualizing, semi-autobiographical narratives written with the Scottish songwriter Emeli Sandé) and the preening title song, laid over the drum thwack of Billy Squier’s ‘Big Beat’ — quickly grow trite, in words and music. They have no mystery. They’re the songs least suggestive of reinvention.”

NY Daily News: “Alicia Keys casts herself as a whole new creature on her latest CD. From the first track, ‘Brand New Me,’ she declares, ‘I’m not who I was before.’ … The question is, does all this talk of transformation translate to the music? On the contrary, much of Girl on Fire sounds like a reclamation — both of the singer’s past and of pop’s…. It’s a leaner and slower album, and better for it. But it can’t quite touch the raw soul nerve it aims for.”

Chicago Tribune: “Keys often pays lip-service to the notion of putting artistry ahead of commercial ambition, but much of her music still feels remote, speaking in generalities rather than in the personal specifics that define great R&B singers. No blood, no tears, no sweat – not many artists are willing to give that much to their music. But when they do, they can make even the most banal sentiments sound earth-shattering. Keys never leaves herself that vulnerable. She specializes in the skin-deep, not the soul-wrecking.”

Rolling Stone: “Call Alicia Keys old-fashioned – she does begin her fifth studio album with an instrumental that flaunts her classical piano training. But she’s an iconoclast, not an anachronist, spicing her flavorful midtempo songs and gusty inspirational ballads with odd chords, unexpected melodic twists, and rock and reggae flourishes…. The result is both her catchiest and subtlest album yet – and one of the best R&B records of 2012.”

NY Post: “For all the natural musical gifts Alicia Keys has at her disposal, some of her recent work has been mind-numbingly dull — and she knows it. That’s why the theme of personal and musical rejuvenation runs so prominently through Girl on Fire, and more often than not, her fifth album offers a clean break from the staid, coffee-table soul of old.”

L.A. Times: “Girl on Fire basically delivers the same payload as Keys’ other albums; it’s a collection of handsomely crafted, gorgeously sung ballads interrupted by several overworked anthems about the value of perseverance.”

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