It's not easy being valedictorian or first in your class or most likely to succeed. (At least I imagine it's not.) The expectations are inherently stratospheric, but there's also an all-too-human addendum that any achievement below perfection is failure. This is why most of us are more comfortable in the seats rather than onstage. The pressure is real.
Alicia Keys has had that hall-of-fame aura ever since she debuted in 2001 with five-time Grammy winner Songs in A Minor. A classically trained pianist with a sublime voice and model looks, she's a rare pop prodigy, a natural incandescence that must get lonely. After all, where do you go from perfect?
This has caused the 28-year-old Manhattanite born Alicia Cook to insist on stringent privacy, indulging in fame only to a point. It's a defensive crouch for a star pupil, a way to defuse the intensity. As a result, however, Keys' albums of love and empowerment — especially her fourth, the new The Element of Freedom — are equally guarded, lush but obtuse, not nearly as personal as they might appear. There's a reason why Keys is infatuated with Prince, why she indulges in the Purple One's ambiguous romanticism; you never know where you stand with him, either.
If I sound like I'm cutting on Keys, allow me to clarify: She is the rare artist who is money in the bank every time out. Buy her records; you won't be sorry. My editors think I'm obsessed with her, but I'm no pushover. The singer-songwriter-musician is so talented, she's graded on her own scale. Her B — what I gave Freedom — is everyone else's A.
Album opener Love Is Blind is a mid-tempo ivory storm with sharp vocal runs reminiscent of a long lost Labelle record — but in reality, Keys can write this stuff in her sleep. The he's-gone lament Doesn't Mean Anything has a sneaky power to get you weepy — but save for a soft cinematic piano line, it's basically a rehash of 2007 hit No One. Gauzy first single Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart didn't do much on the charts, possibly because we've heard her do the Princely falsetto before. The rise-up gospel of How It Feels to Fly is a fine vocal exercise, but it's the equivalent of Alicia Keys Mad Libs.
My favorite new cuts aren't the most technically impressive, the most acrobatic; instead, they show Keys taking chances, having fun.
Put It in a Love Song is a club-banging duet with Beyonce, another superwoman. It's a dancer, a shout-out, but Keys sneaks in a gently downward piano part, almost as if she's telling us how she truly feels in the flash of popdom. Wait Til You See My Smile is a robust oddity, a wannabe Phil Collins '80s hit with socko drum fills and buzzy synth. It's a total head-scratcher and mildly cheesy, but it's so earnest, so true, this might be the real her at last.
The album closes with Empire State of Mind Part II: Break Down, a stripped solo version of her current smash with Jay-Z. It's more travelogue now, delicately showing all the highs and lows of the Big Apple. But without the braggart rapper, it lacks the original version's urban snap and power. It was as if Jay acted as a bodyguard, allowing Keys to strut without fear. Without her friend, the R&B star backpedals into her cozy sheen, making good music that yearns to be great.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.