The Element of Freedom (released December 2009)
After listening to Alicia's newest album, I came to a very sound conclusion - she must have had some crappy boyfriends since we last heard from her on 2007's As I Am. The majority of The Element of Freedom's tracks either deal with getting over heartbreak or convincing herself (and her friends) that her new man isn't as bad as he seems.
But great albums are born from pain. Ask Mary J. Blige. And while The Element of Freedom is no My Life, it's close. Really close.
"Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart," her latest single, might have a depressing title but listen deeper and the song is more about triumph than tragedy. It's odd to hear Alicia over such a thumping bass but I love the change in direction. And speaking of strength, "That's How Strong My Love Is" seems self-explanatory, but check out Alicia's tender vocals. Any other artist would have used such powerful lyrics as an excuse to scream all over the place (coughFantasiacough) but Alicia's delicate touch only adds to the experience.
That out-of-the-box approach is what makes this album a winner. Alicia took the freedom theme to heart as she dabbles in all sorts of sounds. "Love Is My Disease" is infused with Jamacian beats, "This Bed" is right out of Prince's playbook (she even does his squealing "baay-bay!" ad-libs) and "Un-Thinkable" is straight-up old school, smoldering R&B.
Y'all know I love that.
Even her first single "Doesn't Mean Anything," which I found pretty mundane when it was first released, sounds a little better nestled in the context of the album. I can't say the same for "Put It In A Love Song," which features Beyonce and lyrically sounds like a less ghetto version of her "Video Phone" track. It's very out of place but I'm sure the kids will love it.
Her heart is in the right place on "Distance And Time," an ode to long-distance love, but it's pretty unremarkable - and that's coming from someone with lots of experience with long-distance love. And choppy lyrics and tired metaphors kinda hurt "Like The Sea."
The lack of a true standout single stops the album short of becoming a classic (her revamped version of "Empire State of Mind" could have done the trick, if Jay-Z's version wasn't already so played out). Still, Alicia has produced one of the strongest albums of her career, and likely the best R&B album of the year.
That should help cheer her up.
Best tracks: "Un-Thinkable," "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart," "That's How Strong My Love Is"
4 stars out of 5