An Annotated Introduction to Alicia Keys' "Girl On Fire" Album
I'm already a week late. Alicia Keys' "Girl on Fire" album was released last Tuesday, November 27, yet I just heard it for the first time last night. I usually like to catch the albums of my favourite artists hot-off-the-press, but was glad that I had my first listen to it the way I did.
Brilliant. While I would have really enjoyed catching the event in the moment, I was still pleased to be able to get the track-by-track breakdown from Ms. Keys herself as she sat in her New York studio, surrounded by friends, co-collaborators, and international online attendees (including ultra-sultry soul brothers, Maxwell and Miguel) to go through each song and take her fans watching online through the album's journey.
It was like watching the commentary version of your favourite DVD...before you've even watched the movie. And while it's great to find out the behind-the-scenes bloopers, why certain shots were chosen, and the inside scoop of other anecdotes of films on screen...I found it so fabulous to go through the same process for a musical recording. In fact, I think it was great that I was introduced to the album this way because I will be able to mentally refer to the context, the rationale, and the process behind that track. It can only make my listening experience of this album that much richer, going forward.
What I like about this album (which is what I like about all of Alicia Keys' albums) is the emotional journey through sound and lyrics. From her first album in 2001 to this album, over ten years later, you can hear the musical growth, vocal growth, and the mental growth of Alicia as a woman and an artist. And as a fan and a woman in her age group, there are so many paralells that can be drawn from her compositions that make the musical experience even that more personal.
As a pianist...I can't wait to get my hands on the piano book version of the album, which is also an important part of my experience as a supporter of her career: being able to sit at my own piano, and play the songs back note-for-note and enjoy another level of fulfillment from her compositions.
I've got em all. CDs. Piano books. So this process for me is almost ritualistic at this point, and filled with gems that I'll always love to play: Songs in A Minor (2001) - Pretty notes, simple pleas..."Falling" and "A Woman's Worth" are two of my favourites to play from this album. The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003) - Full of emotional..."Diary" and "If I Ain't Got You" are my piano faves here. As I Am (2007) - Ooh, what was better than "Like You'll Never See Me Again?" ...so classic! The Element of Freedom (2009) - This album had great energy with "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" and the wonderful broken down version of "Empire State of Mind," not to mention "Unthinkable." Great album.
Girl on Fire (2012) - Now I've only technically listened to each song once or twice, but my general impression of the album at this early stage of listening is that it's right up there with the others. In fact, there were pieces of "old" Alicia that I heard on a few songs. And by "old" Alicia, I mean the young Alicia and her piano ala Falling. Simplicity. Beautiful lyrics. Rich soul-tugging chords. Clear vocals. There was something about this album that made me feel the essence of the Alicia Keys that I love: the pianist.
(1) DE NOVO ADAGIO - What's an Alicia Keys album without the classic piano interlude? I like this idea as an introduction, because it ensures thaty ou remember her roots as a pianist, and the foundation of her musical creations.
(2) BRAND NEW ME - Love love love the lyrics to this song, and it's the kind of track that many will be able to relate to on a personal level. This to me is classic Alicia Keys...she is always able to sing the right songs for the right moments, and I think this is the perfect moment for this song to become a hit because of the era in which it exists. It reinforces her maturity, it explains her strength of character, and also lyrically sets her a part as an artist that is so in tune with her own self, that she is celebrating it. As a personal testament, and a great message to others...this song is a guaranteed hit.
(3) WHEN IT'S ALL OVER - This song has a nice groove to it, it's funky, and has great drums and an underground house feel to it. It was produced by Jamie XX (who also produced "Take Care" for Drake) and has an awesome bounce to it.
(4) LISTEN TO YOUR HEART - A mellow track, produced with Rodney Jerkins, it reminds me of the kind of song you play on a summer evening, taking a slow drive and enjoying the air. Breathing. Living. Nice vibe.
(5) NEW DAY - This single, although I've heard it many time already, still hasn't moved me. It's classic Alicia empowerment song, built on a heavy beat. A feel-good song, but actually one of my least favourites. Not because it's terrible, but because it could have been sung by any artist at any time...
(6) GIRL ON FIRE - Loved this song instantly. Love the heavy beat. Love the lyrics. Love everything about it. Had it on repeat for hours at a time one day without even minding. It makes me feel good. It's inspiring. Very fitting for this stage in her career, as Alicia continues to get hotter as an artist an icon. Unstoppable!
(7) FIRE WE MAKE - Hello Maxwell. How can you go wrong with the two of them on any track. Fabulousness. Beautiful. A definite baby-maker in the making.
(8) TEARS ALWAYS WIN - This song has an old soul, not surprisingly because it was co-written by Bruno Mars who is excellent at transcending time and making great new music with an old spirit. Pleasant song...almost forgettable, but just a sleepy, nice tune.
(9) NOT EVEN THE KING - This song has awesome lyrics, really a great love song and I really enjoy the simplicity of the composition, the piano, the vocals. Really nice, and a classic song that could work in any era.
(10) THAT'S WHEN I KNEW - This is a beautiful old-school traditional R&B song that just oozes with the sounds of co-writer Babyface. It has his classic sound that never gets old, really pretty simple and romantic lyrics, and is just waiting for a slow dance. Damn, I miss that Babyface guitar of the 90s! It could do no wrong, and still has that effect! Alicia's voice is great on this song.
(11) LIMITEDLESS - Written in Jamaica, this reggae-ish song is aright, still. Has a nice bounce to it. It may not be heavy in a dancehall setting, but with a bit of remix work can be a big tune based on the riddim and movement of it alone. I like that Alicia keeps coming back to her island roots, especially after the smash "Ghetto Story" remix with Baby Cham. you can tell that this type of flavour is authentically in her spirit. I do have a slight issue with non-Jamaicans putting on that "reggae voice" but because the song has a cool groove, it's not too distracting. It's so a few elements and influence of a few other classic reggae anthems...so it's difficult not to like and appreciate the effort to make this a genuine reggae track.
(12) ONE THING - Pretty song. Soft. Nice melodies.
(13) 101 - This is the one that blew me away. I loved it within seconds, and loved that it would automatically become one of "those songs" that I'll always go to when I'm looking for that feeling. Those goosebump-inducing chords, and unpreditable jazz vocals. This song, co written by Emelie, is wonderful.
Now knowing that Emeli Sande co-wrote a few of the sweetest songs on this album, I am--needless to say--extremely curious about her work, and definitely going to look into her music soon.
Collaborations with Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean, make this album really representative of the "new" soul and flavour of R&B with some of the most unique and talented singer/songwriters of the past few years (including Maxwell and Miguel). Just when you think that R&B is dying, and will never be the same or as good as times past, an album like this with contributions like theirs comes along, and reminds you that R&B may have changed...but it definitely still has the same consistent elements of soul, passion, and fire that are essential to the art form.
There are a lot of young "pop" stars out right now making great music. Music you can dance to, music that makes you feel good. Music that makes you want to sing out loud, etc. But what I really admire about Alicia Keys is that amongst all of the Twitter-scandals and media hoopla, she manages to stay true to herself--consistently--true to music at it's most pure form, and a really classy representative of her generation. I look forward to listening to this CD in my car over the next few weeks, and really being able to take in the intricacies and sensations that I probably missed in yesterday's YouTube viewing.
This is the power of music. I can already feel the inspiration that this album will continue to bring me.
Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Urban Toronto Tales" blog.