Music Review: Alicia Keys' "Element of Freedom"

12/10/2009 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, Sarah Vaynerman

Alicia Keys is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most authentic talents in R&B history. She left a permanent footprint on the industry at the young age of 21 as she mesmerized listeners everywhere with "Fallin'", which to this day is the most powerful ballad Keys has produced. Unfortunately, no track on "The Element of Freedom," her fourth studio album scheduled for release on Dec. 15, even comes close to having an impact as high as "Fallin" did back in 2002 when it won the Grammy for Song of the Year. If you appreciate Keys for her ability to create brilliant arrangements, stretching her voice to glorious limits or singing words that tug on heartstrings, you will be disappointed with her "Freedom."

This is a somber record in which the singer explores her feelings on love more than her musical landscape. The album lacks an uplifting track (with one exception, which we'll explore later) as each song is about loss, longing and loneliness. Keys always has sung about love and heartbreak, but in the past, she sounded like a fighter. On "The Element of Freedom," she sounds defeated by the music and the lyrics. Even the songs that contain positive inspiration are merely dusted with said inspiration, and the album ends up sounding like one long song with a couple of good hooks.

The first single off this album, "Doesn't Mean Anything," is no less depressing than any of the others even though it is cleverly disguised thanks to a hopeful and uplifting melody in the interest of airplay. The second, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," is one of the better songs. It has a sexy, mid-tempo, hip-hop rhythm and will pull you in each time Keys whispers sultry lines like "lonely, own me, nobody ever shut it down like you," which will remind listeners of the poet in her that somehow forgot to show up for the rest of the album. Her collaboration with Drake, entitled "Unthinkable," has a similar vibe and is another one of the few songs that stands out.

Many of the songs are forgettable because they sound like too many of the songs on the album (these include "Love is Blind," "Love is My Disease," "Like the Sea," "This Bed" and "How it Feels to Fly"). "Put it in a Love Song" is a fun singalong that features Beyonce and an unusual amount of pop-appeal for Alicia--it reeks of a future hip-hop remix with a male-rapper-of-the-moment.

Skip "Wait Til You See My Smile" and don't get excited when you see "That's How Strong My Love Is" on the track list--it's not an Otis Redding cover (don't shoot the messenger!).

Compared to Key's last three albums, "The Element of Freedom" is mediocre--but the finale almost makes up for it. Just when you are starting to get sick of the Jay-Z version of "Empire State of Mine" that you've heard time and again, Keys puts out her solo spin with "Empire State of Mind (Part 2)"--and she blows it out the water. Born and raised in Manhattan, she captures what is so special about the city, mentioning marquee lights and gypsy cabs as the piano, guitar, drums and background vocalists steadily fade in until the climax of the song reaches its full anthem potential. Maybe it's because I grew up in and around New York, but among all of the sap "Element of Freedom," "Empire State of Mind (Part 2)" is the only song that made my eyes water and my heart skip a few beats. It's twice as good as any other song on the album.

Many of her fans associate Keys with empowerment. She is capable of belting notes so strong and captivating that people have compared her to Whitney Houston. Yet on "The Element of Freedom" her range is narrow and her voice quiet and breathy by comparison to her famous ballads of the past like "If I Ain't Got You" and "No One." This had to be a challenging album for her emotionally and maybe that's what she wanted--an emotional challenge. But from a technical and musical point-of-view, it's lazy and lackluster. There is no pleasure in criticizing a woman as gifted and as hard-working as Alicia Keys, but she set the bar for herself and "The Element of Freedom" just doesn't jump high enough.

View Alicia Keys performing "Empire State of Mind (Part 2)" live in NYC below. Thoughts?

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • TwitThis
  • MySpace
  • LinkedIn
  • Live
  • Google
  • Reddit
  • Sphinn
  • Propeller
  • Slashdot
  • Netvibes


  1. Sadie said...

    Completely agree with this review. Alicia is a rare, special talent, yet this talent is barely noticeable on her latest album. Which is really sad in her case, because as you said we know she can do better. Way better. I haven't even heard the whole album, but the first single left me feeling really cold, and something tells me that the rest of the record won't surprise me in a good way. This was a really weak effort on her part. Hope she rebounds nicely on her next album. Luckily for her she's a great live performer, so maybe the lackluster songs will be enjoyable when performed live.

  2. Sarah said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  3. Sarah said...

    Thanks for your input, Sadie. You make a good point about her live performances. I'll be watching for them and it will be an interesting angle to review "Element of Freedom"'s tracks recorded on the album vs. live. Please continue to contribute your insights to articles - my goal as a music critic/writer is to get people talking about music again! We love hearing from you :)