** (out of 4)
Following the success of Adele's widely accessible “21,” Alicia Keys must have been tempted to head into the recording process for “Girl on Fire” with a conservative outlook. Keys, who owns the soulful piano ballad lane, is one of the few artists who can credibly and reliably deliver an album of just-edgy-enough comfort R&B that the music-buying public (aka. moms) can get behind en masse.
So the fact that her fifth album shoots for a more modern, adventurous rebranding – it opens with a song called “Brand New Me” – is, in theory, admirable. The album features production from experimental London electronic phenom Jamie xx, there's a song co-written by Frank Ocean, and Nicki Minaj drops two brief verses on the title track. However, “modern” quickly becomes shorthand for wispy songs that sound as though they're being breathed heavily rather than sung.
Furthermore, Keys, who's gotten married and had a baby since her last album, is prone to drifting into heavy sentimentalism on these topics. This mode can become a drag, although it becomes more entertaining once you realize that the subject of these love songs is Swizz Beatz--the guy who produced “Ruff Ryders Anthem.” While songs like “When It's All Over” and “Only Thing” do provide the barest hint of experimentation to some success, it's only when Keys lets loose vocally, such as on highlight “Tears Always Win,” that the album becomes truly satisfying.
In this case, sticking to a more obvious formula might have been more rewarding.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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