The Alicia Keys we find on Girl on Fire is much removed from how we left her on 2009’s The Element of Freedom, a rumination on the death of her grandmother and the break-up of a relationship.
For the first album of her 30s, Keys is now married (to producer-rapper Swizz Beatz) and the proud mother of a young son. And understandably, the record takes this as its centre.
For all its big beats and stellar collaborations (and there are many: Frank Ocean, Emile Sandé, Darkchild, Babyface and Salaam Remi to name a few), the core of the album is Keys’ remarkable voice and simple songwriting.
The tone is set by the piano introduction, a sombre reflective piece, and then the defiant, nose-thumbing Brand New Me which makes Keys’ stance clear when she sings: “It’s been a while, I’m not who I was before.”
Girl on Fire is classic Keys at her most commercial. The beautiful, sensual Fire We Make, a duet with Maxwell, is all muted horns and synth bass, a textbook quiet storm. The more you hear this track, the deeper you fall in love with it.
Tears Always Win, co-written by Bruno Mars, is a convincing soul/gospel pastiche, played with a small band.
Not Even the King, written with Sandé, is probably the key track. Shorn of all bangs and crashes, it is a straightforward piano ballad, and although exploring the well-worn analogy of how being rich in love is better than all the world’s money (“Your arms around me / Worth more than a Kingdom”), it is strangely and sweetly affecting.
The credits say that Girl on Fire was “conceptualised and produced” by Keys. When you look at other artists of a similar ilk, you know that she hasn’t just dropped in to record with the latest producer.
As a result, Girl on Fire is a smart album, maintaining the high standards set on The Element of Freedom. It showcases her as a maturing performer and keeps her there or thereabouts alongside Beyoncé as the world’s leading contemporary stylist of mainstream RnB.
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This album is reviewed on Jo Whiley’s Radio 2 show on 3 December 2012