Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

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run(a)way.

June 9, 2010

Monday night, after one more argument with my mother over the dinner table where I should really know better than to voice an opinion contrary to that of my parents’, even if that opinion is backed up by fact and knowledge from my university studies rather than jaded cynicism and hearsay, I decided it was all too much and left home for 2 days.  My father was ambivalent during the whole row, my mother decided I had a “problem” with her and refused to listen to her (despite the fact I expressed my opinions in a calm manner, balancing positives with negatives; these opinions were talked over or dismissed at each turn); that I had suddenly “flipped out” despite the fact that she, not I, was the one raising their voice; that how could my feelings be hurt by her, if she’d had her feelings hurt by me? As if only one person can feel wounded by another at any one time.  I said that over the course of the year, I had learned that the only time I ever argued or was in a toxic atmosphere was at home with my parents, that I have the ability to make friends time and again and therefore there can’t be anything wrong with me, that I would no longer let my parents make me feel ugly.  I left to give myself some space, and I am more than grateful to Toby and Mike for providing me refuge, and to all of my friends for understanding and for saying that I was right, and not crazy.

People say that “friends are the family you can choose”. Others say that “blood is thicker than water”.  It is true that I will never not love my family: my mother and I were inseparable during my early years and we got each other through the dictatorship, misery and abuse (verbal, mental, very rarely physical) my father wreaked on our lives.  I won’t forget that.  Neither do I hate my father, although he doesn’t love me: he’s never known how to be a father, but at the age of 16 I finally realised that hating him still meant that he had some power over me.  I saw him weakened after one too many accidents on his bicycle – watching my father crippled, being wheeled in a wheelchair, having to help him go to the toilet in hospital made me realise that his power was all an illusion, and that if I didn’t submit to his subjugation, there was little he could do to truly hurt me.  Since those epiphanies, I’ve been able to forgive him for my childhood, and at times I know that his lack of attachment to me makes him almost an objective source, and occasionally a better source of advice or confidant than my fiercely feisty but heavily biased mother (if I have issues and neuroses, I most certainly learned them from her).  He’s not a bad person and I don’t think he ever meant to be, he’s just imperfect.  My mother is imperfect too, and just as I rebelled against my father, I’m now fighting a battle to establish myself as an intelligent human being against and apart from my mother, who unwittingly (unlike my father’s deliberate past sabotage) threatens my intellect and independence fairly often.  Her timing is off however: I’m 24 and after university not once but twice, and a gradually-formed but steadfast collection of true friends, I’m stronger than ever.  So I won’t take shit from either of them. I don’t need to.

I came home this afternoon with some trepidation: as much as I am strong now, I’m not invincible, and if I had been kicked out I don’t know how I would afford to live elsewhere until my job at Cirencester kicked in (my first salary payment won’t come through until mid-September, and my bursary won’t keep me going until then, especially if I’m juggling rent with driving lessons and tests, which are indispensable at this point).  Financially, I just can’t afford to be out of this house; emotionally, if they said goodbye, I’d walk out and never come back because my pride would not let me do otherwise.  I’d be shooting myself in the foot, but I’d do it with resilience in my eye.  However, I’d rather not have to shoot myself in the foot 😉 My mother is giving me the silent treatment: even though I don’t think I was in the wrong, before leaving on Monday night I apologised for “getting heated”. My mother did not, does not apologise unless hell has frozen over or unless she’s actually not done anything wrong.  My father is pretending like nothing ever happened, and is playing piggy in the middle of our fury; because there are 3 of us in our family, one of us is usually stuck in the middle / left outside alone (delete as appropriate) while the other two bait and infuriate.  Usually, I’m the third wheel to my parents’ storms.  So I can understand my father feeling relieved that he’s off the hook for a little while.  My stubbornness, identical to my mother’s (I won’t lie: we have a lot of similarities and I have had to reprogramme myself to eliminate some of her neuroses and pessimism ingrained in my psyche at a young age – they’re not all gone yet), means that our arctic silence will persist at least a week or two.  I don’t want this, I don’t want to be locked in war, and yet as a child I always surrendered to the silent treatment.  Not only am I not in the wrong, but I have apologised for my foibles in the argument.  I have nothing else to say: my mother evidently feels she is impeccable.  So what else is there to say or do, other than go on and wait for everything to subside?

Once everything is financially stabilised, I will be gone from here.  It’ll take only a few months I believe: my life is slotting into place and in my mid-20s, it’s been long overdue for me to be out of home.  Returning from my undergraduate degree, it was really difficult getting used to living under my parents again; over the past year when I’ve been going to UWE, their relationship seems to have destabilised to the point that I prefer to be alone or out than endure the atmosphere.  Perhaps it’s partly just natural for me, as an adult, to want my own independence too.  It is within reach now, I just have to bide my time a little longer and keep looking to the sky. Hopefully, when I achieve my goals, with some perspective and space my parents will be happy for me.  And if not, then that’s okay too, because I will be happy for myself and I have enough people who care about me that I feel healthy.  I can do this 🙂

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love me.

May 6, 2010

Yesterday we were doing a magazine CV collage with some special needs students visiting UWE, and the idea of this activity is for the kids to divide a sheet into Hobbies, Future, Skills/Interests and School, and then they have a big pile of magazines from which to cut out pictures and annotate each section, to draw up a picture of themselves.  It’s quite a basic activity but the students always enjoy it, and often end up just flicking through the magazines.  Each time we seem to have to edit the content (for example, the story “I was battered by a 12-inch dildo” isn’t quite appropriate!) – usually from women’s magazines, you girls are filthy!!! – but generally a lot of fun is had.  I had brought in some old copies of Vibe and Touch to contribute to the magazines the students used for collages, and I found one with a Mary J. Blige interview, which I couldn’t help but start rereading.

Apart from talking about the backstories to some of her earlier songs, and stating that people seemed to support her more when she was making sad, introspective songs struggling with love and life than her newer, more lyrically upbeat material, Mary talked about learning to accept love, finding romance and getting through years of emotional abuse.  This was the most interesting part of the interview for me, and resulted in me deciding to keep the magazine and take it back home (as well as listening to My Life again)!  I reflected on my own love life, and thought about a variety of my favourite celebrities: Mary, Mariah Carey, Usher, Janet Jackson, Rihanna (among others) have all stated that they never thought they would find love; that maybe love just wasn’t for them.  For a while, I was starting to feel the same way, and even though I am now in a relationship I still often wonder if I’m capable of really loving someone, giving myself to somebody.  I never had anybody who treated me so wonderfully and who seems to really care for me, and yet I find myself trying to sort out the fantasy from the reality: what is falling in love?  What does it feel like?  Will I know? Or is it more realistic to be with somebody who makes life that little bit better, but still have your independence and feel like an individual person.  What is love?  Is love the former, or does it fall somewhere in between? I just don’t know, and I guess that different people have different opinions on love (depending on their experience; some people really do know when they have found the one, others believe they have and then get it wrong, other people again seem to say that no lover is perfect but being with somebody who treats you well is the most important thing).  I just feel like I’m tiptoeing through a foggy minefield and at any moment it’s all going to blow up in my face.

I think part of my confusion stems from the fact that I am stubborn, feisty and fiercely independent.  Over the last few weeks, it’s come to the fore that I have real problems with letting other people care for me, look after me or even do things for me.  I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like I’m grown up now and I shouldn’t need other people to do things for me; I relish my autonomy and I almost feel like that’s being threatened when a family member, friend or partner tries to help me with something.  I understand that part of being an adult is knowing when to ask for help, but I still don’t like doing it because I feel like I should be capable. In some implicit way, I guess that I might feel that allowing somebody to do something for me is both their suggestion and my subconscious confirmation that I am incapable.  I don’t like feeling like that, but I’m also aware that it’s a complex in my head that doesn’t really exist; people do things for one another out of kindness and friendship bonds.  It’s also hypocritical of me to feel like this, because I am always one of the first to be willing to help another person.  I get afraid when I feel like I might be being too clingy or relying on someone else too much, and I like to have my own space and freedom – I get very edgy and uncomfortable when I feel like my independence is being compromised – even if in reality this isn’t the case. So this is one complex I don’t get.

I then think that perhaps this is related to my upbringing.  My parents had a very stormy relationship, with lots of verbal, mental and emotional abuse thrown in all directions (including mine).  Though I very rarely witnessed physical violence, it’s still taken its toll and it will never be forgotten.  I realise at times that my upbringing has affected the way I see and do things, particularly in relationships and friendships.  I find it difficult to totally trust people, and although I’m initially usually very open with somebody, it doesn’t take long for my paranoia to creep in and wonder why people do what they do, why they might be nice to me or acting a certain way, assuming there’s an ulterior motive or hidden agenda, and usually blaming myself for these things.  Ironically, especially in the past I used to be scared of ending up alone, wondering why I couldn’t find happiness and almost acquiescing to the fact that I might end up this way – and I’m 24 years old!!! To be thinking like this is a bit crazy, really.  And now I am in a relationship with someone who treats me very well, I often get scared that I can’t return his affection enough, that I don’t deserve this, that somehow I’m going to mess it all up.  Why this self-sabotage?  Things are great, and I enjoy our relationship so much when we keep it light, have fun and just relax.  Again, we’re both young, this is normal and natural – and I do deserve this!  But I can’t stop my brain working and I can’t seem to patch over the vulnerability at the core of my heart that whispers these things to me.  I guess that my upbringing and the relationships that have surrounded me (not just my parents, but throughout both sides of my family) have scarred me more deeply than I’m often aware.

It’s ironic that I’m able to be so frank and openly vulnerable on this blog: although I appreciate that some of my readers don’t know me or have never met me, I also know that some of my readers are my friends whom I know personally.  It’s like being able to write on here is a conduit to my innermost feelings, and I can express myself so fully here that I am truly grateful that I started this blog nearly a year ago (which is insane, it’s flown by!).  But being so honest and open is a little strange when in real life I act so strong, so confident and secure. I have a lot to be secure about, it’s true – but on the inside I often get nervous, afraid, insecure and I can be so vulnerable.  I don’t know how to fix that.  Can I really love someone when I’m still learning and having issues with loving myself, essentially?  Why am I so hard on myself?  And why do I have issues with letting someone love me, care for me and be there for me?  I know I am a good person, I know I am a lucky person, and I know that I deserve love.  I work damn hard professionally, educationally and personally at being the best I can be – I have goals I’m constantly working towards.  I also know that I am human, and I accept the humanity and imperfections of others a lot more readily than my own.  It’s just with all these things swirling in my head, I get so insecure about love, both giving and receiving love and letting someone in.  I feel like at times I offer my vulnerability with one hand and then snatch it away with the other if somebody gets too close.  Why am I like this, and how do I get better?

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take off running.

April 4, 2010

Happy Easter everyone!  I am fast becoming a bit of a scrooge, dreading any kind of holiday because it means not that I will have to spend money (something that I have absolutely no trouble doing, as you should all know by now) but because there will be some form of family gathering. Today hasn’t been as bad as Christmas, because there are buses running and I have taken refuge in Starbucks after a quick dinner with my parents and grandmother – I’ve even accomplished some work (wonders never cease)!  But discussing my current relationship with my family yesterday with Davina and Frankie, and reminiscing over my historical experience of family gatherings with Hannah on msn earlier today, it’s not really a surprise that being in these kind of situations makes me uncomfortable.  So making a swift (but polite – I thanked my dad for a lovely Easter lunch and gave my nan an appreciative hug, promising that I would see her again soon) exit makes sense and allows me to preserve my own good mood and sanity.

When I was younger, every 27th December (roughly) we would drive up to London (or thereabouts) to see my father’s side of the family for a Christmas gathering.  The venue would rotate each year depending on who was hosting the gathering, and to be fair the food was nice enough and I don’t remember anyone being particularly nasty to me.  However, I do remember the competitive atmosphere between my father and his siblings – comparing families’ progress and ‘success’, wealth, partners and so on.  Being from Bristol, we were the “poor relations” in comparison with the other families who would pretend to be upper class right down to their accents, and my mother being Italian led to a sense of exclusion and some prodding jokes from certain members of the family (this is racism!).  Despite the fact that my father was largely absent during my childhood, and when he was there he was either drunk, argumentative and mentally / verbally abusive, or sleeping, my intelligence (which, much to their chagrin, undeniably outclassed all of my more “well-to-do” cousins – money doesn’t buy smarts, and I promise that in this case I’m not being up myself, it’s just the truth) and good traits were attributed to him rather than to my mother (who raised me more or less single-handed).  Because of this, and because of the fact that the other members of this family were largely self-absorbed to the point of being imbecilic, I didn’t really enjoy these yearly outings, because it seemed like a lot of chest-puffing and bravado for no real purpose.

My grandmother (the head of that side of the family, who seemed to portray herself as the Queen) died when I was 17. From the age of 17, we never had any more of those yearly gatherings. Nearly all of my father’s siblings’ marriages (and some of my cousins’ relationships) broke apart, one aunt declared she was a lesbian and moved her secret girlfriend in, and we never heard from them again.  In other words, all that competitiveness and fuckery had been for show, for my grandmother.  For what purpose, who knows? Interestingly, for all the dysfunction and stress in my family, we stayed together through thick and thin, and I had always got on better with my mother’s side of the family (though they are far from perfect), even though they were from another country – gasp!  But I’ve never tried to be anything I’m not, and that’s the same issue that drives me crazy now, but in a different way.

I can’t be an angel for my grandmother (the one who’s still alive, obv) – I never really was an angel, but I’ve gotten darker over the past year.  I’m 24 years old and I can’t be treated like I’m 12 by anyone – I am not on drugs, I don’t have an eating disorder or a gambling addiction and I find it frankly insulting to be accused of those things by my mother, the woman to whom I was so close during my childhood.  Shouldn’t she know me better?  Shouldn’t she credit me with more intelligence, show me more respect?  Has everything I’ve accomplished, the fact I’ve never gotten into trouble – does that all mean nothing?  It really hurts me when I have to suffer those things, even if they’re just jibes, coming from my family – the people who are supposed to be on my side more often than not feel like they are against me now, when I’m just being myself and having my own independent thoughts, opinions and life.  I refuse to compromise, I refuse to conform – I’m an adult, why should I? And shouldn’t my family be proud that I am my own man with my own mind? I don’t understand why I have to give itemised accounts of where I’ve been, what I’ve done, what I’ve eaten. That’s why these days, given the slightest opportunity, I’ll take off running out the door, because my friends (the only family I feel I have these days), my sanity, my freedom is out there.

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surveillance.

March 18, 2010

Tonight, I got home about 8:30 after seeing Karina and talking about our love lives, her work, my uni, and other topics in between.  We had a really good time, and I ended up having a panini in Costa for dinner as I was hungry and it transpired that I was gonna be there until 8ish.  I called home during my time with Karina to let my mother know that although I wouldn’t be home late, I wouldn’t be having dinner with my parents as I was eating out.  Bearing in mind that I rarely am home to eat with my parents, but I let them know this every night (or they ask me in the morning prior to me leaving the house), this usually works fine and they respect me doing whatever I’m doing.  However, tonight as soon as I got in the door, my mother asked me for no apparent reason “is that all you’ve eaten today then?” Like wtf? Bearing in mind last week my mother practically called me a bulimic junkie, again for no logical reason, it’s getting on my nerves.  Nevertheless, I had to give her a rundown of exactly what I had eaten during the day, and then we debated whether I actually liked tuna or cucumber (because I had a tuna and cucumber sandwich at lunchtime).  I’m 24 years old, I pay rent to my parents (admittedly a token amount, but rent nonetheless) so in theory if I’m not eating at home, it’s more money in their pocket.  We have a good relationship, and I come and go as I please.  I’m tidy, I respect the house and clean up after my father where necessary (this has always been the case).

So one minute, they respect my privacy.  I appreciate this when it occurs, as I haven’t come clean about my current relationship (until it’s firmly established, I don’t see why I have to tell my parents about my sex life or my love life – it’s not their business. And to be fair to them, they don’t ask) and so the fact I don’t need to make up excuses about why I don’t get home most evenings before 11pm is a weight off my shoulders.  But then, the next minute they take that respect away with bizarre questions or requests for information about my private and personal life, and I feel like I’m a little kid again.  Am I respected as an adult or not?

Things have been intensified by the return of my grandmother last week from Australia.  Now, me and my nan have always been extremely close, and it’s pretty clear that I was both of my grandparents’ favourite grandchild (although the fact that my competition was halfway across the world in Australia meant that I did have an advantage).  My nan and I have called each other during the day and at night to converse, or at least to say hello or goodnight as appropriate to the time of day.  But now that I’ve been free of my nan for 3 months while she’s been in Australia, it’s hard to adjust back to this constant feeling of being under surveillance and having to answer questions on who, what, where, when and why.  I’m a pretty decent grandson – I’m 24 and I still visit my grandmother every week and spend time with her.  Most people my age (and a lot younger) barely see their grandparents except on special occasions.  I genuinely love her, feel close to her and treat her with dignity and respect, and so aren’t I a good grandson that I deserve some respect also?  I mean, I feel awful saying that because she does love me to pieces, spoil me and she does respect my intelligence but also the person that I am.  But she doesn’t seem to respect my privacy or boundaries, and wants to know every little thing I do.  I’m 24 years old, I’m a good grandson and a good human being, but I’m also a grown man – am I not entitled to my own life?

Talking to my friends, it’s apparent that I have to move out.  Not because any relationships are strained – I don’t believe they are.  I do my own thing, and the fact that my life seems to be clicking into place at last – career, relationship, driving, general happiness – means that I’m fast outgrowing my bedroom at home.  When I’m at Toby’s house, although he shares with 4 other people, it’s nice just to have the ease that nobody cares whether I’m in or out, what I’m eating, what I’m doing and with whom.  I guess that also, my parents and I seem to get on a lot better generally when I’m actually not here – largely because I don’t have to listen to their arguments (or “discussions”), and I have little chance of becoming embroiled in them.  I miss my grandmother, but I guess I’m really a man now – I handle my own business and I no longer need anyone else in my family to do that.  I have enough close friends, good friends, to whom I can talk about any problem or issue, big or small – for a long time, there’ve been things I didn’t want to discuss with my family, but now there’s nothing I feel I need to run by them.  And I guess I get confused when one minute, they don’t expect me to run things by them, couldn’t care less what I do and barely seem to notice my existence – and then the next, I’m guilty of some big crime (which I haven’t committed) without even being made aware of it.  I don’t want to be under this surveillance, and I feel that I’ve been a good enough son and grandson that not only does my family not realise how lucky they are, but I’ve earned respect and freedom, and the right to lead my life the way I choose without any repercussions.

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statement of purpose.

March 7, 2010

I was sitting in Caffé Nero in House Of Fraser in Cabot Circus with Toby today, reading the newspaper (quite uncharacteristic of me – what’s more, I was reading the news and doing the crossword!  Not even the gossip pages!) and I came across an article about being an author and how it’s not the easiest way of making a living. I said to Toby that I’d like to write a book one day, though I don’t really know what about; I don’t even know if it would be a novel, or more a reflection on life and love. And I thought back to when I started writing this blog 9 months ago – how far I’ve come from my first entry! How quickly time has passed, and how much I’ve grown and how much my life has changed.  I’m glad to say I am in a much happier space now, and better is yet to come!

Reading that first entry, I knew almost at the time that the misfired sense of whimsy I was aiming for (in the style of Bai Ling, who tbh is quite insurpassable) wouldn’t last, but I didn’t know how seriously I would end up taking this blog, nor how important this blog would end up being for me, for my sanity and my self-expression; as well as for my music.  Not only have I got a lot better at writing, but being able to be utterly honest in a public yet private and near-anonymous forum has been freeing. I’ve made new friends through writing, and some of the comments I receive let me know that my writing has touched others, that I’ve not been alone in going through some of the emotional, romantic and self-esteem struggles that I’ve experienced.  That alone makes writing this blog worth it, and I thank you for reading it. I hope that I can make a difference to someone’s life, even in a small way.  That makes it worth it.

So returning to the question of what kind of book I would write, I prefer to think of myself in the style of a columnist, I guess something Carrie Bradshaw-esque.  I am sure it could be done (and perhaps in time my mind will grasp a format that works), but right now I couldn’t imagine my writing fitting into book form (other than a diary). But like in Sex and the City, I would almost prefer to write for a newspaper (not quite like the one I was reading, but certainly something a few steps above your average tabloid or glossy magazine – how’s that for snobbery? 😛 ) because this blog is a way for me to keep track of my own journey through life, my own development.  I grow and change through time, just as we all do – we all experience new things over the course of our lives, and this blog is a way of chronicling that.  So in short, I don’t honestly think that I would change anything about the way that I write now – I just hope to get better at it.  Perhaps in time I’ll focus on one consistent topic or theme, but right now the mixture of ruminations on music, love, sexuality, self-esteem, fashion, fragrance, dream analysis, family, friendships and relationships is perfect for me as it perfectly encapsulates who I am.  Perhaps in the future I’ll go back to writing poetry, to sharing some of my new song lyrics once the Quiet Storm album campaign is closed and I’m recording new material – I haven’t done that in a while.  Who knows what the future holds? But life is for living, and we’re all living it right now… so on with the show! 🙂

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empowerment.

February 18, 2010

Yesterday, I decided to get back on the horse and take my first steps towards accomplishing one of my goals for 2010, which is to pass my driving test and get a car.  I’m 24 years old, I’ll need a car for jobs once I finish my current university course, and I also just want to take this step towards freedom.  I feel a little guilty relying on friends who drive, and I want to repay the favour; I’m tired of getting the bus, I’m tired of having to leave Toby’s at 10:30pm just so that I can get home.  I want to do what I want when I want.  So I took my driving theory test for the first time in 6 years, and I passed it.  So onto the practical! I have a CD-ROM to help with this (though I have yet to view it, and unless the CD puts me in a car, I’m unsure as to how helpful it’ll actually be), and I’m going to book an intensive course for a week in the Easter holidays, hopefully with a practical test attached at the end which I can pass and then get my licence.

When I was 18, I took this practical driving test 3 times, and kept failing. The first time, I nearly passed (and perhaps should have), but the second and third time my nerves got the better of me and I couldn’t function effectively.  I know that driving is an industry and examiners are unnecessarily rigid, because they can get money out of people retaking tests.  But I just need to get my shit together and give them an excuse not to fail me.  I’m hoping that being a bit older with more life experience will give me the strength I need to get through the test, but I have to acknowledge the fact that I’m still nervous about it!  But I’m going to try a different strategy (blitzing it in a week rather than taking a lesson each week might hopefully give me less time to get nervous) and my determination to pass – it’s a necessity! – might just see me through.  We’ll have to wait and see.

The theme of this blog entry is in the title – empowerment.  So far, 2010 is shaping up pretty well – two of my three goals seem to be progressing towards successful completion and it’s only mid-February.  I have a wonderful new boyfriend and I am slowly learning to be in a relationship with him.  I am halfway towards my driving licence, with the next steps clear in my mind (and my wallet, *sigh*), and Mike’s neighbour Andrea has a car (Peugeot 306 – nothing fancy but it’ll get me from A to B) which he is going to sell for £800 that I am considering purchasing (not only does he have to go through Mike who can be fearsome if necessary, but I’ve met Andrea myself so he’s unlikely to rip me off – I know where he lives!).  I have got a fantastic best friend at university with whom I am extremely likely to keep in contact after the course ends, and I have shed nearly all the weight I’m looking to shed.  I have got two tattoos that I love, that are exactly right for me, and I am making plans for the third (watch this space! It’s going to require some considerable designing though so I won’t be blogging it next week or anything 😛 ).  In other words, life is good right now. I’ve tried to keep my blog even, to reflect the positives and negatives, the joys and heartbreak in my life in equal measure, in a way that means you can see and feel what is personal to me but also in a way that’s not so personalised that nobody else can relate.  I’ve also blogged about music, fashion, perfume and other things that are personal interests of mine, but which are also interesting to the general population.

This blog itself, along with all of the aforementioned things in the above paragraph, are steps towards my own empowerment.  It’s funny how much can change in six months.  I have a lot of growing to do, but I look at myself and I have come quite far in quite a short amount of time.  I feel like an adult, like I’m not an ugly person but someone deserving and strong.  I can’t be strong 100% of the time, and that’s ok, but I’m stronger now than I used to be and I can see it, I can feel it.  And this journey is only beginning, I have more steps to take (car, job, financial stability, my own place) before I am anywhere near satisfied (hah!) but I acknowledge my progress towards independence and I feel good about it.  I can do this.  We have to empower ourselves each day to get a little bit further towards where we want to be, and I refuse to ever be powerless. This is what I realise now, and I am empowered.

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Alicia Keys – The Element Of Freedom (album review).

December 6, 2009

Alicia Keys’ new album The Element Of Freedom comes after her biggest success so far, As I Am, in a career which hasn’t had any troughs or lows to date.  Every album she’s released, from Songs In A Minor to the present has explored depth and soul, has combined traditional elements of R&B with current, up to date production and lyrical exploration of love, loss and self-esteem in a genuinely mature fashion that is beyond Keys’ years.  She’s consistently walked the fine line between critical and commercial success, effectively having her cake and eating it since 2002.  Alicia Keys plays the piano like a professional, but is not an entertainer who hides behind her instrument – she takes risks, sings and dances on stage, and has always commanded respect with an element of political and social awareness to boot.  So what does her new album bring to the table?

Like Rihanna’s Rated R, The Element Of Freedom is impossible to divorce from the singer’s personal life context. Keys has suffered some backlash for her love affair with separated-but-not-divorced super-producer Swizz Beatz.  Fans have turned away from Keys’ maturity and moral standpoints expressed in her material to date, saying that she was phony, that she was no better than the singers who dressed and acted like hos, and the lackluster success (i.e. it didn’t shoot straight to #1 as people presumed it would) of first single “Doesn’t Mean Anything” is perhaps because of this.  Despite a simple yet effective video which sticks to the album concept of being free of material things and going beyond all boundaries, the song was solid but seemed like a softer retread of her previous hit “No One”.  Nevertheless, especially since I’m certainly not in a position to judge Keys’ being in love with a man who is attached, the music is far from bad, and second single “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” as well as her collaborations with Jay-Z, “Empire State Of Mind (Parts 1 & 2)” seem to be coming closer to replicating her usual success.

Here’s to hoping that The Element Of Freedom continues Keys’ string of successes.  Alicia said of the album that “”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, you’re going to hear things that you probably didn’t think that I would sound like. It’s a journey.”  Some of this I agree with, some of it I don’t hear myself.  “Doesn’t Mean Anything” and “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” both build to exhilarating climaxes, not because the music is especially bombastic (it’s anything but, though “Broken Heart” has a compelling drum loop that comes closer to bringing Kanye West’s 808 fascination into the 21st century than he himself seems to be able to manage).  Standout tracks “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease”, “Distance And Time” and closer “Empire State Of Mind (Part II)” all employ soaring melodies that propel the listener to think and to ride their own emotions; Keys’ production and piano backing compliment each song without ever taking centre stage (as happened on occasion in her first two albums).  Its undeniable that Alicia Keys knows how to write a song, knows how to sing a song and knows how to express a song even with a voice that sometimes is limited – she wrings the emotion out of every syllable be it with a whisper (“Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart”) or a throaty, heartfelt plea (“Love Is My Disease”).

So the album is solid – but is it really that different?  As I Am saw Keys taking risks and incorporating traditional pop and even rock elements into her smoky R&B soul with stellar results (as well as a couple of lackluster songs), and that sound continues here, but in places incorporating 80s drums and synths – this sound is definitely in vogue (I still struggle to understand why), but at least Alicia Keys sounds less like she is pandering to fashion than most artists – again, this is tribute to her genuine musicianship.  I find it hard to say that I am “shocked” by anything on this album – ok, for the first time her intro is a spoken-word explanation of the album title and concept rather than a pianist showcase.  Her collaboration with Beyoncé, “Put It In A Love Song”, is fun and the closest Keys has ever come to club-ready, and Beyoncé’s voice and swagger doesn’t dominate the song as I might have feared – the two artists compliment each other perfectly and adeptly ride the compelling bassline. But here is where the surprises end – opening track “Love Is Blind” performs the same function as previous opening tracks “Go Ahead”, “Karma” and “Girlfriend”, in that they are uptempo, loop-driven productions that display the singer’s confidence before she delves into her vulnerability later in the album.  “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” sounds almost too similar to The Diary Of Alicia Keys‘ “Slow Down”, and while “This Bed” provides an interesting diversion on Freedom, its The-Dream-esque synths and piano are really echoing Prince (which is 80% of what The-Dream does anyway) – and Alicia Keys already covered Prince at the start of her career (“How Come U Don’t Call Me”).  The album ends on a legitimate high with “How It Feels To Fly” and “Empire State Of Mind” exploring her ideals of freedom, exhilaration and expressing her love for New York – but she’s even played those cards before, at the end of As I Am (“Sure Looks Good To Me”) and The Diary (“Streets Of New York”).

As stated earlier, the most interesting aspect of the album, lyrically speaking, is matching the songs to Alicia Keys’ newly revealed love for Swizz Beatz, never mind his marriage.  Her feelings about it resonate through the titles – “Love Is Blind”, “That’s How Strong My Love Is”, “Love Is My Disease” and particularly “Unthinkable”.  Lyrics such as “Some people might call me crazy for falling in love with you” (“That’s How Strong My Love Is”) and “I’m wondering maybe could I make you my baby / If we do the unthinkable, would it make us go crazy? / If you ask me, I’m ready” (“Unthinkable”) speak for themselves.  Obviously, as members of the public there’s only so much we know about the situation, and only a certain percentage of that is remotely true – but the artists put their souls on a record and we can’t help but speculate, at the same time as we feel the songs and apply them to our own lives and emotions.

So The Element Of Freedom is, generally, more of the same from Alicia Keys.  It’s not nearly as risky as Keys herself might proclaim, and it’s not the best album of 2009, but it does provide some moments of genuine exhilaration, and there are plenty of strong tracks to make the weaker ones (“Like The Sea”, “Wait Til You See My Smile”) nothing to gripe about.  What’s more, Keys has found some freedom in being brave enough to write about her love and experiences in a new way – and if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past three months, it’s that love is stronger than anything and I can feel most of what she’s singing about.  Her piano playing compliments the songs without ever becoming a gimmick.  And anyway, after all, if Alicia Keys is providing more of the same, she’s still doing a damn sight better than your average R&B chick.  The lyrics are still simple but deep, the music is still soulful yet current, the songs are still well-written and hooky.  I believe Keys has a better album in her yet (The Diary Of Alicia Keys is still my personal favourite), but I thoroughly commend her for not dipping in quality throughout the past 7 years.