ALICIA KEYS: GIRL ON FIRE (2012)
1) De Novo Adagio (intro); 2) Brand New Me; 3) When It's All Over; 4) Listen To Your Heart; 5) New Day; 6) Girl On Fire; 7) Fire We Make; 8) Tears Always Win; 9) Not Even The King; 10) That's When I Knew; 11) Limitedless; 12) One Thing; 13) 101.
Wow. It has actually been a long time since I last subjected myself to an album that bad, and it almost sort of slipped my mind just how bad a «Diva»-style R&B album can get — and, honestly, it does not get much worse than this. It's almost as if Alicia's major goal here was to specifically shatter every last ray of hope one could ever have held — because, honestly, it all began in a different way: the girl had a small, but significant stash of talent, training, intelligence, and character to break out of the muck. But instead of progressing in the right direction, she ended up wasting it all — regardless of how bad her subsequent output will be, Girl On Fire puts a certified final stop on the idea of Alicia Keys as «a serious force in R&B to be reckoned with».
There are just so many potshots to be taken here that I do not even know where to begin. Perhaps one could start with the album title and the front sleeve photo — that ain't a real human being out there, is it? Maybe if the record were a cyborg-based post-apocalyptic anti-utopian rock opera or something, it would have made more sense. But then, once the minute-long piano intro (rather ordinary, but probably the best thing about the whole album) is over, we do get to hear the lady say "Don't be mad / It's just a brand new kind of me / Can't be bad / I found a brand new kind of free", and it looks like she means what she says. Not just brand-new — factory-made, shrink-wrapped, registered with a certified trademark, and ready to go.
The «music» is not worth a serious mention: on most of the songs, it just consists of tepid electronic patterns, non-descript acoustic backing tracks, and boring drum machines. Alicia's piano skills have completely receded into the background — except for those two or three times when it is decided that the listener needs an extra shot of soul in the form of a weepy minimalistic ballad (at this point the piano is dragged out and we get a lazy atmospheric run through some scales). I think the only moment of «real life» on the entire album is at the end of ʽFire We Makeʼ, where guest star Gary Clark Jr. tries to somehow justify the title and strike out some actual sparks with his jazz-rock guitar solo. It ain't exactly Jeff Beck or John McLaughlin, but on a record so utterly devoid of life, it is that much-needed glob of oxygen that allowed me to catch my breath and actually sit this out (thrice!) until the end.
Still worse is the singing, because, for some reason, Ms. Keys seems to have been told that 2012's requirements for «soulful» are limited to one strict formula: «breathy voice let out through the nose». Maybe that is exactly what they all do on American Idol today, but that does not make the effect any different — she honestly sounds as if under some heavy drug influence the entire time. This isn't «soul», not to mention «freedom»: this is simply conforming to the adopted formula. Again, she was never a particularly great or individualistic singer, but the frame inside which she locks herself here is downright pathetic.
And it is all the more pathetic given how much — even compared to the previous albums, which all revolved around this idea as well — she is extolling her «self-established» nature on here. The lyrics speak for themselves: "It took a long, long time to get here / It took a brave, brave girl to try" (ʽBrand New Meʼ) — «brave» is definitely the last word that comes to mind when thinking about this record; "She's on top of the world / Hottest of the hottest girls" (title track) — resorting to the third person is a nifty trick that can always bring down formal accusations, but we are not that easily fooled; and the mightiest of them all — "Money / Some people so poor all that they got is money... I don't care what they're offering / How much gold they bring / They can't afford what we got / Not even the king" (ʽNot Even The Kingʼ), which should be an official contender for 2012's corniest lyrical bit competition.
Almost everything here ranks from, at best, unmemorable and conventional (e. g. the elevator muzak of ʽWhen It's All Overʼ) to, at worst, hokey and pseudo-tough (the obligatory rap bit on the title track; the strange last-minute brush with «psychedelic» vocals and guitars on ʽLimitedlessʼ; the «powerhouse» synth-gospel finale of the hidden last track, where she belts out hallelujahs as if begging forgiveness for what she just put us all through). But what should you expect? When you have a well-polished android like that greeting you on the front sleeve, there are but three possible outcomes: (a) this will be a spooky Kraftwerk album, (b) this will be a decadent Roxy Music album, (c) this will be a really, really shitty modern R&B album. And since the credits are right there on the sleeve as well, options (a) and (b) are out of the question.
Naturally, being a responsible reviewer and all, I must emphasize that this is all a matter of subjective opinion. For instance, it definitely does not co-represent the position of «Rolling Stone» editor Jody Rosen, who called Girl On Fire «her catchiest and subtlest album yet — and one of the best R&B records of 2012» and awarded it 4 stars out of 5. (For the record, the same Jody Rosen gave Aimee Mann's Charmer, which I consider to be one of the best records of 2012, period, 2.5 stars out of 5, complaining about lyrics that were «sagging under the weight of mixed metaphors». Yeah right, no question here — lyrics like "party people say, ah it's a new day, while they getting ready for a new day, celebrate and say ay-ay-ay-ay" definitely don't have all that much to sag under, that is for sure). So who am I to throw in my two thumbs down? Do I get my records produced by Babyface, Swizz Beats, Jeff Bhasker, Antonio Dixon, Dr. Dre, James Ho, Darkchild, @Oakwood, @PopWansel, Salaam Remi, and Jamie Smith all at the same time? Not even in my worst nightmares, I don't.
Check "Girl On Fire" (MP3) on Amazon