Posts Tagged ‘Songs In A Minor’

h1

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.

h1

caged bird.

September 17, 2009

“Right now I feel like a bird
Caged without a key
Everyone comes to stare at me
With so much joy and reverie

They don’t know how I feel inside
Through my smile, I cry
They don’t know what they’re doing to me
Keeping me from flying
That’s why I say that

I know why the caged bird sings
Only joy comes from song
He’s so rare and beautiful to others
Why not just set him free

So he can fly, fly, fly
Spreading his wings and his songs
Let him fly, fly, fly
For the whole world to see”

–  “Caged Bird”, Alicia Keys (Songs In A Minor)

I was listening to this song on the way to work this morning, and I remember I used to empathise with the lyrics so, so much.  I really used to feel like I was in a golden cage.  I was always very good at school, getting top marks, and I consistently made my parents proud.  Whether it was my perfect results, glowing reports from teachers, the fact I never did drugs or drink or really anything stupid, I was not an angel but I was a pretty good kid.  And yet I wasn’t happy.  My parents had a very tempestuous relationship, every time I ‘acted up’ (be it legitimately or just deviating from the strict guidelines of my family) I was reprimanded, and I felt effectively like the moment I put a foot wrong, despite all of my success and demonstrated maturity, I would have pleased those who wanted me to fail and let down those who told me I had a bright future ahead of me but secretly hoped, almost expected me to fall down at some point.  It wasn’t easy, and sometimes (though I’m glad to say, more occasionally these days) I still feel that way.  The friends that I had at school called me names because I was good at academic stuff, because I was gay, but in the end I grew a thick skin and somehow ended up popular – but it’s all nothing, because however people perceived me (particularly back then), it was rarely anything close to who I actually am.  Sometimes people just see a certain part of your façade and choose to put in you in a box that’s easier for them to understand, despite the fact that they may pigeon hole you incorrectly.  So I also felt “caged” in that respect, that my peers would look at me as having ‘everything’ (not being as wealthy as most of them, but having more brains in spite of that – as if the two were connected! Winning awards and positions of responsibility, having a fair amount of friends – even though in the long run they didn’t last – and being able to look nice in my later years only added to this perception that I was lucky.  And I was lucky, but not in the ways that they thought.) but in reality I was a different person and my life was not as easy and carefree as they perceived it to be (especially when they would try to make it more difficult!).

But listening to the song, I didn’t feel that it was ‘my song’ the way I used to, and I guess that is a very good thing.  I don’t feel ‘caged’ anymore.  I have power over my own destiny and have done since I left Oxford.  I may still live at home, but it was my decision this time to go back to university; it was me who got my new job at the BRI (something which was finally a breakthrough from retail); it is me who will decide to learn to drive.  I mean, my results and my decisions were always my responsibility, but now I am 23 I am old enough to say and decide what I want to do without family or friends influencing me or saying I should do this or that.  Well, they may still make plenty of recommendations, but I choose whether to listen and I don’t feel obligated to follow their advice anymore.  I guess it’s a sign of getting older, but people are finally accepting that I have common sense and I have my own reasons for deciding to do what I want to do and how I want to do it.  And those reasons are respected.  It’s a good feeling – although everyone enjoys feeling like they are the underdog in a perverse way, it’s refreshing to finally feel like I am in charge of my destiny (regardless what anyone says!).  Sometimes it is hard living up to people’s expectations, and sometimes I might breakdown, but I know that those expectations are primarily my own expectations.  I am hard on myself and I guess that I always with me.  But if I’m alright with me, then that’s the most important thing.

I love this song because it also reminds me of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, which I am still only midway through – once I finish American Psycho (which will be soon), I may try and finish it, though the book is so damn big it’s not practical to carry it around with me.  We’ll see.  But at the same time that our problems are always biggest to us whereas in the context of the whole world they may be quite small, compared to things such as racial injustice, rape, and other things that Maya Angelou went through that I have no personal experience of, there’s nothing wrong with me or my life.  It’s just a work in progress.  And I like to think that that is quite healthy.