Alicia Keys is on fire. And she is hotter than hot. She is sizzling! Luminously. Her fifth studio album, “Girl on Fire” (RCA Records), which was released on Nov. 27,, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and No. 1 on the Top Digital Albums chart in the U.S. Additionally, the album is currently the best-selling album in the country. Internationally, the album scored No. 1 on the iTunes chart in 19 countries for the popular vocalist, musician, songwriter and producer.
The title track has nearly reached 1 million single sales for the multi-platinum-selling Keys, winner of 14 Grammy awards. In addition, it is No. 3 on the digital singles sales chart, as it swiftly moves up the 40 radio charts. “Brand New Me,” the first track on the album, is now the most introduced at urban radio formats. On top of all of this, “Girl on Fire” is the fourth album by Keys to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making Keys the first female R&B artist to have three consecutive No. 1 LP debuts on the Billboard 200 album chart.
“Girl on Fire” introduces a new stage in Keys’ personal and professional life. Her maturity is obvious on the album, which is vibrantly colored with themes of life, love, hope, wisdom and empowerment. On a personal level, it speaks of a unique, talented female who has come into bloom. As she shares with her fans in the sleeve notes, “This is the most inspiring time of my life! There has been so much growth and so many experiences that have pushed me to become the woman I am today.”
The album is the masterwork of a musician blessed with a gift that she, in turn, has nurtured. It is also that of a skilled songwriter who has keenly observed humanity, and in so doing, has written some of the most honest and graceful lyrics that speak to everyone. All the songs on “Girl on Fire” are exceptional musically and vocally, and every track is a lesson in Keys’ creative prowess. The album is a great study of a master artiste at the top of her game, as the following four songs from the 12-track album demonstrate.
On the powerful anthem “Girl on Fire,” an eight-bar intro of rap music over a big-sounding drum kit introduces Nicki Minaj’s evocative rap. The haunting lyrics instantly pull listeners into Keys’ dramatic world. The engaging build-up continues with 16 bars of synthesized emulation of the 1960s Mellotron keyboard. During the second half of the 16, Keys’ signature piano sound (which has been sampled and sold and used by musicians on many records) is allowed to sit on top of the synthesizer, supporting as well as doubling its pattern, resulting in a retro yet current sound–and it is wicked!
At bar 16, Keys’ powerful vocals come in strong with the hook, “This girl is on fire.” The vocal at this point is mixed with a big-hall-type reverb and a long slapback delay for that big arena sound. This is also where the drums enter. Huge, rock-concert-type drums. The high-end percussion that we would normally hear is not present, leaving the frequency area where Keys’ vocals sit uncrowned. This song is clearly written to be the song. And it is! Glory. And amen! It is unforgettable. (We can hardly wait for it to be performed live.) The instruments were clearly carefully selected to work well together while sounding minimalistic–not overproduced, big, but not forced. This is excellence!
On the empowering first track, “Brand New Me,” Keys’ significant lyrics unveil a woman taking back her power. Her conversation with her lover–whom she is courageously confronting after a long time of being the overly submissive one in the relationship–echoes the reality of life for many women. Musically, the song starts off with a three-chord repeating progress of Keys’ acoustic piano, while her very mellow lead vocal, which has been recorded with a lot of compression to tame it, takes over. The beauty of this song is that it is pure and simple. Therein lies its distinctiveness, and Keys gets intense with her voice, which is absolutely perfect on both the lead and background vocals. On the second verse, Keys is supported by strings arranged and performed by Davide Rossi, as well as a tasteful percussion track of toms and snare. The multitalented Keys is also on Moog and the CP-70 grand piano. The total package is what you would call a great performance.
Keys teams up marvelously with Maxwell on the love song “Fire We Make,” a ’70s-style R&B number. The strong bass sound, solid bass drum kick, the horns under the vocals, the ad libs in the middle and end of the song, and Maxwell’s signature handclaps are all to live for. And as if all of this artistry were not enough, check out Keys’ lyrics for the chorus: “This invisible pull that takes us to the stars / It’s getting higher and higher / It’s the fire we make / It’s getting sweeter and sweeter / Like a night to the day / I can’t stay away / Saying no no no no / No no.” Wow! Yes. Yes. Yes! There’s no staying away from the pure, sweet magic of this song.
The jam is on with the track “Tears Always Win.” It’s time for blue light and a house party with this kind of funky hip-hop beat. Yet, at the same time, the moving, introspective lyrics about love lost take you to another place. The orchestration is kept simple enough to play live and be convincing using only a typical rhythm section, drums, guitar, bass and Keys on acoustic piano. A sampled siren sound floats in and out filling in holes and moving the track along beautifully. The use of a thick background is a nice contrast to some of the other songs on the multi-varied album. The bridge forces Keys to sing at her extreme range (top of her range). And she is absolutely marvelous. Yes! This is yet another exceptional song.
This is just a sample. The other tracks are all special. Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” is a masterpiece that is sure to become a classic. We strongly suggest the album for your holiday gifts. It is the perfect CD for your New Year’s Eve party. Happy Holidays.
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