“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin, “Risk”
The great joy of Alicia Keys is in her ability to meld the heights of the pop and soul sound to create aesthetic brilliance. On fourth studio release The Element of Freedom, Keys wholly divests herself more than ever before in this aim, and the product of this is easily her most robust work to date. Clearly a woman scorned and hurt by love in the past, Keys pours the entirety of her emotions regarding the subject into this release creating an album both wistful and hopeful and the same time. Keys has new love in her life in producer Swizz Beatz, and it shows. On this album, her release from her turmoil and woes in romance is quite obvious. She covers the entirety of the feeling in this cathartic 53 minute journey into the soul of someone who on this record ascends to being one of the most brilliant songstresses in the history of music.
The album opens with the quotation of Anais Nin’s “Risk,” one of the most brief yet terrifically effusive statements on relationships in the literary realm. It is the unerring desire to have strength in the face of heartbreak that absolutely makes this album a success. This strength mainly comes through on a production level from the work of Plain Pat and Jeff Bhasker, the two individuals most responsible for Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, and all over the album, most specifically on “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” those trademark drum patterns and extremely dark synth work rear their head and take Keys’ typical yearning down a path of hurt insistence, the scorn more than readily apparent. The use of the production team on the album is not necessarily curious, but it does allow for a more than deepened expression.
The element of freedom in this release is Alicia Keys’ ability to stand up and be herself.
This album also marks a move from Alicia Keys from sheer insistence upon her piano and minimal production values. This move is executed beautifully on tracks like album opener “Love is Blind,” where an aforementioned Plain Pat/Jeff Bhasker production is stripped from the realm of hip hop, and taken completely into the realm of pop by Keys’ piano melodies. Even her duet with the omnipresent Drake, “Un-Thinkable” succeeds, as Keys’ maturation as an artist is more than apparent, the element of freedom being far more than just an expression of love. Big and expected hit track “Put It In a Love Song,” a duet with Beyonce is solid as well, featuring those insistent drums again, and direct songwriting by Keys that shows her other talent that is shown as unparalleled on this album. “Like the Sea” as well features drums programmed to crush and crumple instead of crash and smash, into a deepening abyss of a production. The result? A track that Keys makes triumphant by the end by strength and melodious quality of her voice alone.
However, those who are fans of Keys’ mellifluous piano work need not stress, as, well, the album’s absolute success, her broken down and bone stripped take on her duet with Jay Z “Empire State of Mind” is majestic, a pop remix of the hip hop instant classic. Much of the piano driven tracks on here have the feel of classic pop standards, “That’s How Strong My Love Is” sounding like it was stolen straight from the Richard Marx playbook, and the polite dub of “Love is My Disease” sounding like Frampton coming alive once again, both comparisons meant to be positive as both tracks hit #1 and are instantaneously recognizable.
Keys closes out the album with three tracks produced with a direct nod of the head to the purple pride of Paisley Park, Prince, as “This Bed,” “Distance and Time,” and “How it Feels to Fly” all recall the syrupy, overwrought production method of the legendary master, horns, keys and drums combining to create amazing showcases of the emotive qualities of the human spirit. The attempt is faithful, and even if not completely successful, Keys’ virtuoso talents makes her attempt and near perfection better than 100% of the people who would dare to try.
The element of freedom in this release is Alicia Keys’ ability to stand up and be herself. A child driven by the sound of pop music, she now has found the ability and renown to meld so many influences and styles into her mainstream leaning voice, and she does so effortlessly on this album. The album succeeds on the strength of Keys’ otherworldly voice and songwriting, and is buoyed by solid production that merely takes a backseat to the elegance and expressiveness of the artist herself. Though subtly divergent from the formula in which this reviewer finds her to be iconic and most successful, she extends new limbs into new fields and successfully broadens horizons and extends the depth, scope and length of her career.