By Allison Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; C01
Is there any singer on the planet who plays it safer than Alicia Keys?
She started out as an ivory-pumping neo-soul prodigy, a female Prince, except without the sex. She has wound up the Sheryl Crow of R&B, an all-purpose pop star whose fame has far outstripped her record sales, whose celebrity is her brand. Like Crow, she's the uncontroversial choice for inaugural events, Grammy Awards, corporate-sponsored tours and subpar James Bond themes.
Whether she has failed to live up to her early promise or is merely living out the unchallenging, middlebrow career she was always fated to have is up for debate. Her latest disc, "The Element of Freedom," makes a case for the latter. Like all of Keys's discs, it's manicured and lovely sounding, a musical edition of Oprah's Book Club filled with songs of personal growth, romantic struggle and self-acceptance, done nicely, if not always well.
"Freedom" relies unusually heavily upon mid-tempo, carefully layered lovesick ballads. At their best ("Like the Sea"), they're underplayed and affecting. At their worst ("Love Is My Disease," "That's How Strong My Love Is," which is very similar to, but unfortunately not a cover of, the Otis Redding classic), they're showy emote-athons that initially appear more profound than they are. Like many of Keys's songs, they have a raw, diaristic feel, as if Keys was baring some deep emotional truth. And like many of her songs, they only seem to give something away. In reality, they traffic in the sort of banalities (love as an addiction, ships that pass in the night) better suited to the inside of an eighth-grader's Pee Chee folder than the lyrics of a 28-year-old woman.
"Freedom" lacks a knockout, "No One"-type hit, though the pretty great "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," one of several track on which Keys has beefed up her customary piano parts with drum loops, comes close.
The disc excels only when Keys lets loose, usually with the help of a phalanx of guest stars. "Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down" is basically an extended riff on Keys's vocal part in the recent Jay-Z hit "Empire State of Mind." It replaces Hova's sports team shout-outs and PG-13 ruminations (as well as Hova himself) with an even milder and less controversial string of generalities ("If I could make it here/I could make it anywhere"). Drake shows up on "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)," though he does little more than hover in the background, filling some sort of unspoken requirement that every female R&B album contain an appearance by at least one cool-but-unthreatening hip-hop star.
Keys also teams with Beyoncé, the glittery Diana Ross to Keys's super-serious poetry major, for the disc's best track, "Put It in a Love Song." Beyoncé, who recently survived an even more awkward pairing with Lady Gaga, might want to lay off the duets for a while, but Keys sounds exhilarated, unchained, almost. "Love Song" is an oddly mechanical number that lurches from diva to diva but somehow doesn't fall over; it's flat-footed, but unlike the rest of "Freedom," it's also endearing.
"Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," "Put It in a Love Song"
Stewart is a freelance writer.