The Element Of Freedom
J Records, 2009
REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/30/2010
With her first three albums Alicia Keys established herself as probably the premier R&B artist of her generation, and for me personally, I’ve always found her work more intriguing and emotive than that of her contemporaries. Keys has the ability to make even the lightest songs seem meaningful and even her most introspective numbers are given some seriously catchy, up-beat arrangements. Not only is she a wonderful songwriter, but Keys has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice that makes most of her music so easy to listen to and highly addictive, even the fluffy stuff which I would normally by-pass sounds better than it should.
That is until now because Keys’ fourth studio album The Element Of Freedom is her first mediocre offering and in some parts its just down-right boring. Most of these tracks are expertly crafted (as usual) but they are too similar and for the most part musically overdone and lyrically mundane. The clearest example of this is the plodding and somewhat awkward “Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart.” “Doesn’t Mean Anything” suffers a similar fate although this time at least it’s a more stripped down arrangement which is better suited to the broken-hearted lyric.
“Wait Til You See My Smile” is one of the two cringe-worthy moments to be found here, this one is just overly mushy and its nothing that hasn’t been said before by almost everyone who has ever written a song. The other pathetically cheesy song is a duet with Beyonce called “Put It In A Love Song” which opens with some school-yard banter (“Hey Yo Bey / What up A / What we want / Want them to say / WHOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”).
More sappy love songs follow with “That’s How Strong My Love Is” and “How It Feels To Fly” that add nothing toi either this album or up to now, Keys stellar catalogue of tunes. That’s not to say that The Element Of Freedom is all this bad because there are some fine songs on here but nothing to rival her previous work. However songs like “Love Is Blind” and “Like The Sea” are fantastic groove-laden songs that add some sparkle and much needed life to the proceedings.
“Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” is the album’s best moment by far and Keys vocals here are what I’ve come to expect from her, emotive and soulful. “This Bed” is an up-beat, stripped back arrangement that works a treat and “Distance And Time” is another ballad but easily the best of the many scattered throughout this album. The closer “Empire State Of Mind (Part II) Broken Down” is a powerful statement of love for NYC that finds Keys stretching her vocals for the first time on the record and she sounds brilliant. The song builds from a basic piano ballad into a stately R&B groove that ends far too soon for my liking, but nothing’s perfect.
All in all, The Element Of Freedom is just a case of too much of the same thing over and over again. At fourteen tracks its too long and the emphasis on broken-hearted love songs weighs the album down and kills the momentum that a handful of fine songs here create. I suppose it had to happen eventually but I hope next time Alicia Keys gets back to what she does best, creating some truly memorable modern day soul classics. Until then though, unless you’re a diehard fan, give this one a miss.