It's not just her sound that has changed. Alicia Keys' whole style has evolved considerably since we met her. Then: A raspy-voiced cornrowed prodigy with an endearing hood quality. Now: A go-to pop star with permed tresses, refined interviews and vocals so deafening sometimes it's like she's literally trying to reach everyone in the world.
Change is crucial, of course. But what got lost in her evolutionary process was the gritty edge that once was love at first sight. While her previous and best album, As I Am, struck the proper balance between pop and soul, her fourth, The Element of Freedom, is full of straightforward pleas for affection that are neither outstanding nor run-of-the-mill.
As I Am focused on the urgency of relationships. Freedom reduces the volume and hones in on the desire to just be with someone. The tactic works best on the instantly timeless "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," a gorgeous drum-powered exercise in vocal discipline (with its whispered huffs and puffs) that deals with the loss of a man's mere presence: "Looking in the sky, I can see your face/And I know right where I fit in/Take me, make me, you know that I'll always be in love with you."
For Keys, freedom is about loving whomever you want. Love as the type of yearning that leads to counting days ("This Bed," "Distance and Time"); love as persistence ("Love is Blind," "That's How Strong My Love Is"). Other than the uptempo "Put It In A Love Song" featuring Beyoncé - which is really a Beyoncé track on an Alicia album - Freedom moves at a calm and steady pace.
There's deliberateness to it. Also, rote songwriting, particularly two songs comparing love to a disease and to the sea, respectively. An exception is the moody "Un-thinkable" co-written by Drake, who also performs background vocals behind Keys' breathy chants: "I know you were sent to me/This is exactly how it should be when it's meant to be/Time is only wasting so I wait for eventually." Another standout, "Lover Man," a pulsating '90s-esque jam about steamy escapades, has been sadly relegated to the EP Edition of Freedom.
Increasingly, A. Keys has favored a more global sound, resulting in generic songs like "Doesn't Mean Anything" and "Wait Til You See My Smile," which are decent but better fit for The Lion King soundtrack. The soul comes in spurts on Freedom. But at least one step back for Keys is better than most. --Clover Hope