Alicia Keys, The Element of Freedom (J Records)
"I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired," Alicia Keys said about her new album on BET. And The Element of Freedom sounds exactly like she wants you to feel that. There's lots of earnest breathing-in to tell you that she's, like, earnest; lots of inspirational lyrics about how she wants to know how it feels to fly and how she'll be waiting through distance and time. And lots of songs that start soft and then swell up as she emotes. Earnestly.
Amid all the classy blandness and kind-of-funky-but-oh-not-too-much hooks, the Beyonce collaboration struts in like a red-hot diva determined to set someone's dreary ass on fire. Suddenly we're talking about texting over a beat that isn't embarrassed to be a goddamn beat, and you've got a vocalist singing nonsense lyrics not like she's earnest, but like she's going to throw you down on the ground and grind your NAACP Image Award so hard that it breaks in half. As for the rest of the album—well, Keys' piano-driven "Empire State of Mind" probably isn't significantly more clichéd and/or unendurable than Billy Joel's piano-driven "New York State Of Mind." Faint praise, yeah, but it's all I've got.