On her fifth album Girl On Fire, or at least on its first high-powered two singles, Alicia Keys positions herself as a phoenix of sorts, rising from the ashes of a burned city (“Girl on Fire”) to move forward into a newâ€¦something (“New Day”). Despite the overt symbolism – those singles, her new logo and look – Girl on Fire still presents the same Alicia Keys we’ve grown to sometimes tolerate and other times love, one who has melded the piano balladry of her youth to more contemporary, radio-ready fare with help from the most of-the-moment producers and songwriters.
Which isn’t to say that this is Keys’s album of house beats and sawtoothed dubstep drops. She’s a strategic collaborator, one who scoops up songs – like 2010′s “Un-Thinkable,” written by Drake and his right-hand man Noah “40″ Shebib – that simply gives a hip sheen to her timelessness. On Girl on Fire, these are the best tracks: There is “Tears Always Win,” a throwback soul ballad written by Bruno Mars that harnesses the power of Keys’s voice without allowing it steamroll the song. There’s also “One Thing,” a typically low-key Frank Ocean-penned number about longing that would come off as an expert Babyface update even if a fossilized Babyface song didn’t wisp by two songs earlier.
The stunner, though, is “Fire We Make,” a smoldering duet with Maxwell that sounds ripped straight from his last album (which produced two chart-toppers). This is now the deal with Keys, who is R&B’s equivalent of the Killers: You sift each album for the few showstoppers, ditch the rest and keep it moving. Viewed on those terms, Girl on Fire doesn’t disappoint.