Alicia Keys has just about everything going for her. She is a true and deep soul singer and a master of any keyboard put in front of her. When performing, she leaves it all on the stage with a fiery go-for-broke style that turns witnesses into believers. And the New York native wisely chooses collaborators to craft sounds that straddle classic, gritty soul, and contemporary, urban sleekness.
But after releasing two albums that have occasionally been astounding, she has yet to prove consistently revelatory. Her melodies have tended to meander into static vamps, and lyrically she has settled for the corny or cliched when her voice has cried out for something more substantial.
"As I Am," her new album out today, gets a little closer to the transcendent expression of which we all seem to believe she's capable. Delving further into the pop half of her soul-pop equation, Keys's tunes sing as strongly as she does. Alas, she still relies too often on sloganeering.
For instance, the stirring closer, "Sure Looks Good to Me," has an instantly infectious melody and dramatic sense of uplift, especially in the gospel-informed backing vocals, but Keys conveys her optimism in boilerplate cheers. A lyric like "don't rain on my parade, life's too short to waste one day" is digestible only by the sheer force of her raspy testifying.
That theme of seizing the day threads its way through "As I Am" and has its best platform in "Tell You Something (Nana's Reprise)." Keys vows to share the sentiments we too often keep to ourselves until it's too late - with verve over a crisp tempo that wouldn't be out of place on a Beyoncé record.
Fresh aid comes from the unlikely duo of John Mayer and ubiquitous songwriter-producer Linda Perry. The former offers breezy back-up to "Lesson Learned," while Perry contributes the oddly compelling pop-Broadway-psychedelia hybrid "The Thing About Love" and "Superwoman," the more formulaic, churchy, ode to sister-power.
Hip-hop rhythms, scratchy LP samples, bright Southern soul horns, and slices of funk still factor into the overall mix on tracks like "No One" and the dynamite Stevie Wonder-inspired tune "Go Ahead," the angry but controlled get-to-stepping opener.
Keys could stand to get riled up a little more often. The empowerment anthems are admirable, but songs like "Go Ahead" give listeners a more personal glimpse into a legitimate side of who Keys is when she's not being a superwoman.