Alicia Keys has been compared to several iconic artists throughout her career, including Stevie Wonder. Her soulful voice, virtuoso ability on the piano and her songwriting has allowed her to become R&B’s pride and joy. She has blazed ahead, avoiding awful trends, over-saturation, cliché songwriting and lapses of quality to cement her spot as R&B’s premier artist. She enters into her fourth studio album for the first time without a top five single and a lovelife that has media outlets running wild. Notoriously a singer who doesn’t embrace the spotlight off the stage, Key’s has lived her public life similar to Bill Withers in the ’70s. Similar to the “Stand By Me” crooner, Keys refuses to be a public figure off the stage and while not compromising her art on the stage.
From the introduction, Alicia makes it clear that The Element of Freedom will be an intimate ride. Switching from her standard piano solo opening to a spoken word piece, Keys sets a mood that she follows throughout. The introduction works. It’s done creatively and while many artists waste disc space with rambles trying to prep the audience, Key’s forces her audience to think and interpret on their own. She follows with stand out track “Love Is Blind” that features 808’s, Funk and is co-produced by Jeff Bhasker who assisted 808’s & Heartbreak. He has an ever present role on the album, most notably on “Love Is Blind,” and the combination works wonders without ever coming across forced, unnatural, or imitative. The album from the very beginning shows Keys at her most comfortable, behind a piano with stripped down, percussion-heavy production. Even with the enormity of the drums, almost every instrument, melody, voice or sound on the album has a purpose, and each is distinctive in its own right. Peers should take note on her ability to manipulate her voice and cadences. Her delivery varies throughout and it’s fresh to see an artist push their boundaries without the newest trends or clichés.
One of Alicia’s best qualities is her ability to deliver monster first singles that never copy the same formula. “If I Ain’t Got You” is different in delivery and melody than “Fallin.’” Current single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” again reworks the formula from “No One” and adds a splash of U2’s “With Or Without You,” and should have smashed the charts. It sees Keys venturing away from the traditional R&B ballad and into the realm of Rock/Pop.
“Like a Sea” is Keys’ songwriting at her best. It’s one of those rare occasions where a song poetically and musically work equally. The metaphor and delivery of the song truly shows the Alicia Keys’ growth and immense ability. Lyrics like, “Taking my breath away / current got a hold on me / sweeping me away / wish I can stay / takes me to the top / the cycle that never stops,” put her in rare company with the rest of the R&B world playing catch up. “Time And Distance” is a beautiful ballad, while “This Bed” continues to show a vulnerable side of Ms. Keys. “Empire State of Mind” may actually be better without Jay-Z. She paints a vivid picture of New York City, and her voice may have never sounded so soulful. “Unthinkable” is a duet featuring Drake. The song is one of the highlights of the album and features Drake singing. His role in the song is minimal, but receiving a songwriting credit on the track, and his ability to harmonize is very respectable.
While artists have specific formulas for record, Alicia Keys takes the listener on journeys. She eliminates the constraints of typical R&B songs or themes and refuses to cater towards any specific audience in hopes to stay relevant. She simply creates. The end result is yet another timeless album that one day will be discovered by young soul enthusiasts in pawn shops or in their parents record collection. She finishes out the decade with another excellent effort securing her legacy while proving that she can still push the bar higher. Like Withers, she may not be understood in the present or fully appreciated but her music undeniably will stand the test of time. The Element of Freedom is as intimate and beautiful as R&B gets, and add in hard hitting drums, the album shines. She may or may not be liberated with immense sales like previous projects, but one gets the feeling that Alicia Keys doesn’t care.