After an instrumental prelude, Alicia Keys begins her new album with a misleading observation. “It’s been a while/ I’m not who I was before,” she sings at the start of “Brand New Me.” In truth, on “Girl on Fire,” the R&B songstress picks up right where she left off on 2009’s underrated “The Element of Freedom.”
The difference is that Keys has rarely ever sounded so at ease, so downright sensual, as she does as her latest. It’s her first record since giving birth to her son, Egypt, and the newfound emphasis on looking inward recalls the mood of Beyoncé’s “4.”
In line with R&B’s other great albums from this year (Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” and the Weeknd’s “Trilogy”), “Girl on Fire” is almost underproduced. It’s over the top in the right moments (get ready for some baby talk from her son on “When It’s All Over”), but mostly it’s minimal and lean, as if fully aware that the action rises and falls in Keys’s voice.
The album is stuffed with special guests — from Nicki Minaj’s rap on the title track to a smoldering duet with Maxwell (“Fire We Make”) — but really you can’t divert your ears from the magic Keys conjures on her own at her piano. Her voice, which has grown coarser and more knowing in recent years, is miked so closely, you can hear the deep breath she takes at the start of “Not Even the King,” a stark ode to the power of true love.
“Girl on Fire” is less about the flame and more about what happens when you get too close to it. (Out now)
ESSENTIAL “Fire We Make”