Alicia Keys opens Girl on Fire with a keyboard intro halfway between neo-soul and baroque, and then has the temerity to launch into a stripped-down, piano-trilling torch song called “Brand New Me.” Um, sounds astonishingly like the old one, Miss Alicia Please. Of course, it’s probably never been a better time for the lo-fi R&B chanteuse to stage a public rebirth, no matter how technically inaccurate it is. Adele’s juggernaut of unstoppable physical media sales and armloads of Grammy awards certainly must’ve looked familiar to Keys, and she admittedly arrives to her fifth album with a new husband, a new baby, and a new record label by her side. But musically speaking, Girl on Fire is less a portrait of Keys’s womanhood at a crossroads as it is another extension of a career spent predominantly navigating straight down the middle of the road. There are less pleasant paths to follow, especially as pop radio continues to streamline itself to the point that music as smooth and Sunday-afternoonish as Keys’s seems more and more anomalous.
Of the album’s 12 songs, only the title track seems like a disruptive capitulation to market demands, albeit one that rehashes Keys’s most recent chart peak. “Girl on Fire” invites Nicki Minaj to spit game atop Billy Squier’s “Big Beat,” while Keys majestically howls over repeated power chords lifted straight from her “Empire State of Mind” playbook. It’s a power play, but Keys’s flames are more believably and compellingly stoked in the denouement of “Fire We Make,” a sultry duet with Maxwell’s ever-promiscuous falsetto warbling pillow talk on the order of “The fire we make, it’s getting hotter and hotter/Like a moth to a flame, I can’t stay away.”
Nothing if not magnanimous, Keys lets husband Swizz Beatz step in to co-produce the drumline-accompanied “New Day,” an unfortunately trite motivational anthem (“If you want to touch the sky, hands in the air one time”) that gets compelling only during the coda when Swizz chops up the beat and Keys’s piano lines into pulp. Slightly more successful is the babble cameo by the singer-songwriter’s toddler son, Egypt, during the outro to “When It’s All Over,” a deep and resonant groove with muted breakbeats and squelching synth counterpoints to Keys’s low-end piano chords. But if Girl on Fire is a family affair, her family is vast and expensive. In addition to Minaj and Maxwell, Rodney Jerkins, Babyface, Dr. Dre, Bruno Mars, Jamie xx, and Frank Ocean all earn production or songwriting credits, though most of their efforts end up emerging 100-percent Keys: slow, methodical, deliberate, patient, rewardingly quiet. While hardly symptomatic of a girl on fire, it’s still nice to hear a talent who seemed so frigid out of the gate still attempting to warm up her delivery.