Posts Tagged ‘karma’

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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.

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positive speaking.

July 25, 2009

One maxim that I try to live by, wherever possible, is that of “if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all”.  Of course, it’s natural that we aren’t 100% happy and sweetness and light all of the time, and nobody is a perfect saint, but I try never to be deliberately nasty or spiteful towards people if I can at all help it.  If I feel resentment towards somebody, it is something that I try to channel in a constructive way, or keep to myself so that they won’t know how I feel.  I believe that it is classier not to diss people, and although occasionally I can’t resist the urge, most of the time I can.  Instead of wasting time hating on others, I try to step my own game up – that’s my response.

After my video singing Whitney Houston’s new song was posted on Thursday, I received a barrage of comments on my youtube account, as well as some comments on a Whitney forum.  Some people were positive, some people were critical, which is fine.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.  What really irks me (and what I am always prepared for, because I’ve been doing these youtube videos on and off for 2 years now) is the senseless hateful comments that I get.  I understand that if somebody covers your favourite artist’s song, you may be a bit disgruntled because you like the original version.  But it doesn’t mean that nobody else is ever allowed to sing that song.  I’m not trying to be Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston or Chris Brown, I’m just having fun singing a song.  And I try to separate the genuinely valid comments from the ridiculous (for example: “Whoever told you you were good has mental problems” O RLY? I feel sorry for my friends, for the entirety of my school and its teaching staff, for the students of Oxford University, for a couple of Oxford journalists.  We’re all crazy! Bish please.) and improve upon what I can.  I know I am not the consummate singer, and I am not perfect.  Of course, you can’t please everyone.  But if you have nothing constructive to say, or nothing to back your criticism up, then please keep your mouth shut.  I make it a rule never to reply to comments on youtube because I don’t want to dilute anyone’s opinion, nor enter into a slanging match with any deranged fans.  I sing the song, I make my video, and then I let people say what they want.  It’s freedom of speech.  But if you can’t be nice, at least be classy!

It’s not just me, obviously.  There are plenty of comments on youtube saying Beyoncé is a fat whore (um?), Mariah Carey cannot sing (The Voice? yeah right), that singers who are legitimate superstars are rubbish at their craft.  And while I don’t like every famous singer out there, I have respect for their hustle and appreciate that it is not easy to put yourself up for criticism and hate (as well as adoration and love 😉 ) night after night and day after day.  You have to be incredibly thick-skinned  to keep on going – to give her her due, Paris Hilton made her album and records her tv shows and doesn’t give a fuck what people say and think about her.  If it’s negative, they’re still wasting their negative energy talking about her, so it’s all promotion and job done.  That is something I have a lot of respect for.  But these armchair critics who think they are Simon Cowell are only feeding into these people’s fame, and if you don’t wanna hear from them anymore, then you have to go one better.  If you aren’t willing to do that, or you’re not capable of it, then you should sit your ass down and keep your mouth shut.  If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.

I wanted to also congratulate my friend Hannah on her family dog sitting job she’s netted in September – she’s getting £500 for a week’s work!  Of course I am slightly jealous, because I could really do with £500 myself.  But instead of criticising her or being unsupportive, I congratulated her and am genuinely happy for her, not just because she is one of my very best and closest friends, but because I don’t believe I am a negative or spiteful person.  If somebody does something well, has a great stroke of luck, or is talented, I congratulate them and express my appreciation.  You get what you give, and I believe in passing out positive energy instead of negative.  It all comes back around to you, ultimately, even if it’s a long time in coming… But I never understood the point of hating on people who are luckier or more talented than you in a specific area… instead of wasting your time hating on them, you get your game up.  I am hugely envious of models and guys with better bodies, but instead of commiserating at home eating Ben & Jerrys, I get my ass down the gym and watch what I eat because I want that body and my determination to get it will one day pay off (even if it could hurry up. please.). That will be the sweetest victory.  As Blu Cantrell says, “Revenge is better than money you seeeeeeee!” (“Hit ‘Em Up Style”)  So don’t hate; appreciate, and step your game up… because when the time comes that people are hating on you, you must be doing something right!