There is no doubt that Alicia Keys knows her way around a lovelorn torch song; From her debut single “Fallin’,” to last year’s “Like You’ll Never See Me Again,” she is one of the defining voices in neo-soul. On her latest release, The Element of Freedom (J-Records), she delivers on her forte while venturing beyond the usual contemporary R&B to pedestrian results.
The record opens with the severe “Love Is Blind” which, despite sounding as if it were lifted from Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak — its co-writer, Jeff Bhasker, was the music director for West’s Glow in the Dark Tour — serves to distance the record from Keys’ past releases. While the lyrical content is nothing new for her, its delivery is miles away from her ’70s soul revival past.
The record finds familiar, if mediocre, territory with the mid-tempo snoozer “Doesn’t Mean Anything” before leading into current single, “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,” which is the gem of the album and evokes the best elements of early ’80s Urban/R&B. Keys flutters effortlessly between the breathy verses and letting loose on the chorus. The hook is instantly familiar and will bury itself in your psyche.
From there the record starts to lose focus, meandering inconsistently through standard R&B fare (“Like the Sea,” “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)”) and experimenting with some Coldplay inspired alternative pop with “Wait Til You See My Smile.” While the deviation from the formula is welcome when it works, this is an example of maybe reaching too far. No one expects Keys to venture into the alternative genre, so it’s unclear why this made the record.
Keys clearly has love on her mind, though it’s hard to tell how she is feeling about it these days. From “Love Is Blind” (“Too bad, so sad / It’s too bad ’cause love is blind”) and “That’s How Strong My Love Is” (“Some people they call me crazy / For fallin’ in love with you”) to “Love Is My Disease” (“I try to act mature / but I’m a baby when you leave”), the underlying theme is about as clear as mud. The appearance of Beyonce on “Put It in a Love Song” feels forced and horribly out of place here, further diminishing the consistency of the record.
“This Bed” finds Keys slipping into her purple pajamas and channeling Purple Rain-era Prince, though it feels more like a teenage pastiche than the genuine article. The closing “Empire State of Mind, Part II: Broken Down” feels more like an afterthought, included only to remind folks that she had a hand in one of the biggest singles of the year, yet oddly lacking any sign of the reason everyone bought part one. While it will certainly go on to sell millions, The Element of Freedom lacks the consistency and strong songwriting that listeners have come to expect from Keys.