While it is highly laudable that acclaimed singer-songwriter Alicia Keys’ latest album, The Element of Freedom, delivers 12 tender, bedroom-inclined songs book-ended by an intro and an outro love letter to New York City, it is evidently difficult for any artist to successfully sustain an entire album across a single theme. While Keys’ album has its pleasant peaks, it lacks coherence and simply falls short of her considerable talent. Here, we only get flashes of the Alicia Keys who burst onto the scene with the spectacular 2001 debut Songs In A Minor.
Most songs on Element (the singer’s fourth studio release) attempt to shed light on love and heartache in one form or another, but at a certain point emerges the risk of losing soulfulness, freshness and boldness and producing something contrived. And that's the trap this album falls into. There is just too much sentimental fluff backed by lack lustre, uninspired beats. "Love Is My Disease" is a particularly painful example of the album’s occasional prosaic mediocrity. The same can be said for “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” which is just too cliché-ridden for my taste.
However, there are some great highlights. The beautifully penned "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart" really is a fantastic track and a great single for radio play. The CD’s first two tracks, "Love Is Blind," and "Doesn't Mean Anything" are also gorgeous samples of Keys on top of her game. "Empire State of Mind (Part II)" serves as a great complement to her smash, chart-topping collaboration with Jay Z. She makes a magical statement with the assistance of ascendant rapper Aubrey ‘Drake’ Graham on “Unthinkable (I’m Ready).”
I also enjoy such tracks as “This Bed” and “Distance and Time,” on which she makes her music feel familiar but still manages to sound unsullied. However, I just can’t get into “Like The Sea” and “How It Feels To Fly.”
Overall, while The Element of Freedom is a far cry from an utter disappointment, it is not as powerful as Keys’ previous efforts like Songs In A Minor and The Diary of Alicia Keys, which both copped Grammys for Best R&B Album. Listeners on the hunt for a more thoroughly proper R&B record this season might be better served by Mary J’s latest Stronger With Each Tear.
BEST TRACKS: “This Bed,” “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart” and “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)”