Since bursting onto the scene in 2001 with the hit single “Fallin’,” Alicia Keys has separated herself from other R&B artists by writing her own songs and consistently finding favor with the critics and the masses alike.
With nine Grammy Awards under her belt already, the expectations are high for Keys’ third studio album, “As I Am.”
For the most part, she delivers. On the triumphant lead single “No One,” piano and synthesizer melodies layer perfectly over a persistent backbeat for four of the most infectious minutes of R&B in recent memory.
Other stand-outs like the instrumental title track and the brazenly soulful “Go Ahead” make it perfectly clear that Keys didn’t manage to sell over 20 million albums worldwide by some lucky accident.
Through it all, Keys dances gracefully back and forth across the line that separates pop-infused R&B from R&B-infused pop. The album’s sound is best characterized by piano and very prominent, very funky bass guitar, but that certainly isn’t all it has to offer in terms of instrumentation.
Keys has described the album’s sound as “futuristically retro,” and when gospel-inspired backup vocals and horn sections are juxtaposed with electronic drums and synthesizers, it truly does sound like Motown has met the 21st century.
This impression is only reinforced by Keys’ confident singing, which is rich with the type of emotive quirks and octave-jumping gymnastics that first gave Aretha Franklin’s vocal performances such electrifying charisma.
In fact, if her lyrics were half as compelling and mutable as her voice Alicia Keys would be one of the most captivating songstresses of contemporary R&B. But alas, we’re left to scratch our heads over inarticulate lines like, “Sometimes I feel so heavy hearted / But I can’t explain ’cause I’m so guarded.”
It seems like every track is full of vague musings about a romantic relationship – either how perfect it is, or how angst-ridden. Then again, in the world of R&B, that’s par for the course and even though Keys’ lyrics aren’t particularly thoughtful or original, they at least seem earnest.
Actually, there’s something refreshing about the fact that Keys is content within these tight lyrical parameters. In a contemporary music scene in which every other artist feels compelled to jump onto one political bandwagon or another, Alicia Keys just wants to sing about love.
But “As I Am” doesn’t exactly find Keys stretching herself musically either. The album essentially consists of two types of songs: slow piano ballad and mid-tempo piano ballad. On a shorter album this lack of variety would be forgivable, but with 14 tracks the songs quickly begin to grow tired and indistinguishable.
Without a doubt, “As I Am” leaves plenty of room for Alicia Keys to grow as an artist. It’s nothing more than a collection of simple love songs – but that’s really all it needs to be.