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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alicia Keys: The Element Of Freedom


1) Element Of Freedom (Intro); 2) Love Is Blind; 3) Doesn't Mean Anything; 4) Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart; 5) Wait 'Til You See My Smile; 6) That's How Strong My Love Is; 7) Un-thinkable (I'm Ready); 8) Love Is My Di­sease; 9) Like The Sea; 10) Put It In A Love Song; 11) This Bed; 12) Distance And Time; 13) How It Feels To Fly; 14) Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down; 15) Stolen Moments; 16) Heaven's Door; 17*) Through It All; 18*) Pray For Forgiveness.

"And the day came when the risk it took to remain tightly closed in the butt was more painful than the risk it took to bloom. This is the element of freedom".

Honestly, I thought this was one of the most innovative opening lines in existence — until I checked the lyrics sheet and it clearly said 'bud', not 'butt'. Too bad, said I, there goes a great me­ta­phor: looking at personal freedom through the viewpoint of anal sex. Most likely, the rest of the record will end up equally disappointing.

Of course, it did. First of all, if you ever decide to give it a try, by all means disregard the hype basted around it by Alicia herself, as well as those promoters, agents, and critics that she has on her payroll. Here is but one quote from the lady, and there are hundreds more: «The way that the songs progress are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, you're definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you're going to be shocked.»

This is what happens when your first three albums all debut at #1 on the Billboard: a malicious ego tumor. It is one thing to release a mildly pleasant, generic collection of emotionally overdri­ven American Idol-style ballads and electronic dance-pop; it is an entirely different thing to pro­mote it as a grand, once-in-a-lifetime burst of spiritual enlightenment and liberation, especially when there is not a single vocal move on the record that we have not already heard before, and not a single lyrical line that rises above decades-old clichés.

Hollow pretentiousness is particularly on the rampage with 'Empire State Of Mind' (what an aw­ful title already), where Keys returns to her New York obsession, this time in the form of a power ballad. I love the city as much as anyone, but just how many second- and third-hand love confes­sions does it need? The fact that she was born and raised in Brooklyn should not, I repeat not, be accepted as an excuse to avoid punishment for describing the city with phrases like 'concrete jun­gle' (say, haven't I heard that somewhere before?) and 'such a melting pot' (does she get her inspi­ration from American English manuals for beginners?).

All that said, I still think The Element Of Freedom is a slight improvement over As I Am. If we strip it of the surrounding pomp, eliminate the worst moments and take out the most obnoxious filler (along with 'Empire State Of Mind', I vote for the artificially cute duet with Beyoncé, which basically wastes the talents of both), the rest of the songs are all tolerable. Again, the best materi­al is at the very beginning: 'Love Is Blind' is suitably sharp and angry (Alicia's most generally successful mood), and 'Doesn't Mean Anything', despite being so repetitive, has the best pure vocal hook on the album.

The general style of The Element Of Freedom has been compared to Prince: there are, indeed, some transparent parallels, e. g. on 'This Bed', with Princeish rhythms and Princeish falsetto vo­cals. But the record is mostly about ballads, not dance-pop, and, besides, in real life Prince's pom­posity and ego level may make Keys reveal herself as the little baby she really is, but on his re­cords, there is always irony and plenty of tongue-in-cheek atmosphere (which, in the end, is what makes it possible for us to like him); The Element Of Freedom is deadly serious, from top to bottom. If Prince was one of the primary influences, then, sorry to say, she just does not get Prince. Or maybe I have overrated Prince.

I do have to acknowledge one thing: if As I Am sounded like someone seriously wanted to pro­cess Alicia in MTV's meat grinder the regular, time-honoured way, The Element Of Freedom does honestly seem to sound the way she herself wants it to sound. Nobody is forcing her artistic hand on this one. It is Alicia Keys, the freedom rider, who, consciously and of her own free will, is responsible for all the bland arrangements, lyrical clichés, unsubstantiated pretentiousness, and tolerable melodies that do not, however, progress anywhere beyond the levels she had already displayed eight years ago. So which one is actually better — slavery or freedom? I'd say Ms. Keys has built up quite a strong case for the former. Thumbs down.

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