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Album review: Alicia Keys' 'The Element of Freedom'

December 14, 2009 |  9:21 pm

Keys_freedom__240_On her fourth studio outing, the pop-R&B diva digs deep into the multitude of implications of independence, discovering that for just about anybody other than a Superwoman, it can bring up issues of loneliness and insecurity as well as the potential for strength through self-sufficiency.

In "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," she's crafted an intriguing refrain: "I'm gonna find a way to make it without you . . .," admitting she's still searching for a full-fledged sense of security in whatever newfound freedom she's come into. But then she extends the thought with the kicker word ". . . tonight."

Is she taking the one-day-at-a-time approach of a 12-step program for romantic addiction? Is it merely the application of an emotional band-aid? Or might she be asserting that the path to true independence always begins right here, right now? It's never entirely clear, and the ambiguity makes the song that much richer.

She's said in interviews that the album's title also connotes her shift for this work from the professional recording studios she's previously used to a home setup she's assembled. Sonically she and the album's main co-producers -- Jeff Bhasker, Kerry "Krucial" Brothers and Swizz Beatz -- paint with broad strokes, in some cases freely slathering on colors and textures in contrast to the comparatively simpler approach on earlier tracks such as her 2007 hit "No One." In some of cases, one wishes she'd exercised a little less of the freedom she has to add anything and everything that's at her disposal.

She does pull back the reins effectively in "Love Is My Disease," which opens with sparse backing and a subtle reggae undercurrent; Keys allows her usually impeccable voice to express the fraying of emotion as she faces her inability to stand tall.

On the flip side, self-confidence is in full flower in "Put It in a Love Song," her effervescent duet with Beyoncé that has "hit single" written all over it. Drake drops in for some background vocals on "Un-thinkable (I'm Ready)."

She closes the 14-song collection with "Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down," reprising her portion of the recent collaboration with Jay-Z, done ballad style with additional lyrics that testify to the strength she draws from her surroundings in the great metropolis.

After the all-too-human ups and downs she's experienced through the rest of the album, ultimately she comes out of it sounding pretty, well, super.

-- Randy Lewis

Alicia Keys
"The Element of Freedom"
(J Records)
 Three stars (Out of four)