Alicia KeysBrand New Me

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Emancipation narratives are all-pervasive in female pop. Often, though, a lot of hot air about “breaking free” or “finding oneself as a woman” doesn’t mean the singer, after years of smiley servitude, has emasculated her handlers with pinking shears, torched the recording studio and hit the road with all the cash in the kitty and her tutu aflame. It just tends to signal a new stylist.

Similarly, a lot of fuss about “rebirth” usually means a change of labels or the pitter-patter of tiny Louboutins. Listeners with long memories could be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at the phoenix-like rising mooted by Alicia Keys‘s latest album, Girl on Fire, her fifth. Recently, Christina Aguilera‘s Lotus declared a comparable reinvention. Joss Stone keeps breaking free from things.

In the case of Keys, ludicrously successful purveyor of soulful lady music, the case on paper is persuasive, however: stylist, label, husband, baby and more. There is her new stark bob. There’s her marriage to hip-hop producer (and serial babyfather) Swizz Beatz, which has produced a son called Egypt, now two. His cuteness is manifest at the end of When It’s All Over, an intriguing modernist soul outing with jazz beats produced by the xx’s Jamie Smith.

Tectonic plates have shifted. The landmark record label, J, has beenreabsorbed into RCA. Keys has parted ways with her long-time manager. Her songwriting partner, Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, appears less involved in Keys’s fifth album; others (Jamie xx, John Legend, Swizz Beatz, Dr Dre, Frank Ocean, Salaam “Amy Winehouse” Remi) have filled the gap.

Co-written with her British mini-she, Emeli Sandé, Brand New Me is Girl on Fire‘s opening declaration of independence, one that intrigues and frustrates in equal measure. Lyrics such as: “Your words don’t burn me any more” lash out at her unnamed former oppressors. Seething is a new skill set for Keys, whose past songs have rarely gone anywhere near an artery.

Ultimately, though, it still cleaves too close to the polite piano soul with which Keys has filled 10 years. And she’s supposed to be on fire here, not just warming the piano stool. Flamin’ Alicia was a little more in evidence at the recent MTV VMAs when Keys performed the engagingly bombastic title track accompanied by rapper Nicki Minaj and Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas. All echoey drums and Caribbean sing-song,Girl on Fire is a little redolent of Rihanna, but not so that you would complain; throughout, Keys is working at the edge of her range, as she does on Empire State of Mind , easily Keys’s most shivery performance since her debut in 2001.

The sassy New Day, meanwhile, borrows from the Amazonian guerrilla tradition of Beyoncé. “AK!” Keys shouts, as though armed, “new day!” It’s riveting to hear Keys sounding considerably less middle aged for the first time ever.

But it doesn’t last. Someone quickly douses her tutu and prises the pinking shears from her grasp. Realistically, Keys probably knows where her 14 Grammys are buttered. And even if the producerly tweaks on soul fare such as Listen to Your Heart are commendable, she seems most relaxed on songs like Not Even the King. There, it’s back to just Keys and her keys.

Her second music video from her latest album “Girl On Fire.”

Review by: Kitty Empire from The Observer

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