“Girl on Fire” isn’t only the title track to Alicia Keys’s best album in years: It’s the best Keys song to ever sample Billy Squier (the song nests inside a drum sample from his oldie “The Big Beat”) while shamelessly borrowing its title from “The Hunger Games” and also featuring a guest rap from Nicki Minaj.
Minaj is there to serve the same need rapper Eve did in the early 2000s — to increase a song’s crossover prospects and add an element of cartoon danger. Until now, Keys has needed the help. She’s a mild, unforgettable talent who makes mild, forgettable albums and who has historically relied on guest artists such as Jay-Z for supplementary personality. On “Girl,” Keys’s first release post-marriage (to the disc’s co-producer, Swizz Beatz) and post-motherhood, she’s found her footing — and her backbone — at last.
In its various bouts of independence-declaring and hater-berating (pop divas, like warlords and movie moguls, apparently have many enemies), “Girl on Fire” suggests a slightly more self-aware version of Christina Aguilera’s “Lotus.” “Thought that you’d be happy / I found the one thing I need,” Keys trills on “Brand New Me,” co-written with singer Emeli Sande, the Alicia Keys of British People, before asking, “Why you mad?”
Who could be upset? “Girl” sands down the edges of Keys’s nobility, but even at its most venomous, it doesn’t bite — it nibbles like an angry kitten. Its real pleasures lie in its subtle updating of her familiar, diaristic piano ballads, its incorporation of vaguely modern beats (like the woozy “When It’s All Over,” with nonspecific chill-out tent noises courtesy of Jamie xx), and distinctive, martial percussion. But “Girl” can’t perform miracles, and it may have erred in placing Keys, Version 2.0, in the proximity of the perpetually smoldering R&B star Maxwell. He sets the otherwise mild bedroom jam “Fire We Make” ablaze just by showing up.
— Allison Stewart
“Tears Always Win,” “Brand New Me”