Alicia Keys drops Girl On Fire, her highly anticipated follow-up to 2009's Element of Freedom today. Although it shouldn't be a surprise for an artist of her caliber to continue to outdo herself, there is always this fear that the great ones will become complacent, and in the immortal words of Armando Christian Perez , a.k.a Pitbull, "complacency is the cousin of death."
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But there is no reason to fear such a thing on Key's fifth album, which starts on a classic AK note, with the "De Novo Adagio" piano solo and then segues into the ballad "Brand New Me," which shows Keys' writing at its most empowering: "It took a long, long time to get here/it took a brave, brave girl to try/it took one too many excuses, one too many lies/don't be surprised if I talk a little louder, if I speak up when you're wrong/if I walk a little taller, I've been under you too long/if you notice that I'm different/don't take it personally/don't be mad, it's just a brand new kind of me."
Keys has never been one to boast a perfect voice, but it's the slight strain to hit those higher notes that makes her music so raw and powerful. The album's title track "Girl On Fire" has her almost shouting the chorus, which, in turn, urges the listener to do the same as an affirmation. The Sophie Muller-directed video is a visual feast, too, showing the 31-year-old songstress having fun in her new role as a mother.
The smokiest track on the album -- a duet with Maxwell called "Fire We Make" -- is also the one most diehard R&B fans will pay special attention to because it lives up to its name. The two trade verses over some gentle handclaps and electric guitars and we all know what happens when Maxwell climbs that falsetto.
Another notable guest on the album is Bruno Mars on the vintage-sounding declaration of love "Tears Always Win," which features him on bass, guitars, and background vocals. Keys also invited Frank Ocean collaborator James Ho to produce "One Thing" (Ocean also co-wrote the track) -- possibly the most understated love song on the album.
On "Not Even The King" Keys sings so close to the mic that it picks up the sound of her breath in between notes. The ballad is essentially a part two to one of Key's most timeless gems, "If I Ain't Got You."
There are rare instances in which Keys deviates from the slow-burning, contemplative mood of the album. But when she does kick the tempo up, she makes it count. What follows the all-too-safe Babyface ballad "That's When I Knew" is "New Day," produced by Keys' hubby Swizz Beatz and Dr. Dre. Keys rides that beat of the marching drum with a New York swag that's always been the key ingredient to her music. Hey, it works. That's why, even 11 years into the game, the girl's still on fire.