Alicia Keys' 'Girl on Fire': The Billboard Cover Story
A lot can happen in the span of three years. Just ask Alicia Keys. Since the 2009 release of her last album, "The Element of Freedom," the singer/songwriter/musician/ producer/actress has penciled in a few more hyphens next to her name. In addition to becoming a wife and mother, Keys began co-managing her career, produced her first Broadway play, directed her first short film, executive-produced a made-for-TV movie as well as an upcoming theatrical film, designed her own Reebok shoe line and recently launched an animated storytelling app for children.
ALICIA COVERS BILLBOARD
And in the middle of this whirlwind of activity, she found time to write and record a fifth studio album, the aptly titled "Girl on Fire."
"These last three years have been the most in every way," Keys says during a promotional stopover in Dallas. "The most newest, the most difficult, the most loving, the most dream-filled, the most breaking free . . . an entire crazy dynamic of lessons and emotions to grow into and claim. This whirlwind has definitely forced me to be who I am, to be free enough and brave enough to just not accept anything else-nor try to be anything else."
That declaration rings loud and clear throughout "Girl on Fire." Fine-tuning the self-discovery process she initiated with 2007's As I Am, Keys alternately rages and simmers on the Nov. 27 RCA Records release-her first since former label J Records was absorbed under the RCA banner. The singer's trademarks are still in place: impassioned soulful vocals, self-accompanied by distinctive piano fusing classical and gospel runs with R&B/ hip-hop and pop melodies and beats. But this time around, Keys' creative spark is stoked by enterprising collaborations and deeper lyrical honesty.
Opening track "Brand New Me" sets the stage: "It's been awhile, I'm not who I was before/You looked surprised your words don't burn me anymore/Been meaning to tell you, but I guess it's clear to see/Don't be mad it's just a brand new kind of me/Can't be bad I've found a brand new kind of free," sings Keys, whose chic bob is also emblematic of her changing focus.
"That's the most personal song Alicia has done," says RCA CEO Peter Edge, who signed Keys to J. "She has a very emotional way of delivering a song. But on this album she has dug deep, become more confessional and personal versus talking in gen- eralities. It's a very big step in a new direction."
Keys adds, "This is me stepping into my complete woman- hood, my journey to becoming fearless."
She credits her husband, songwriter/producer/DJ Swizz Beatz, and 2-year-old son Egypt for helping her see the world with new eyes and feeling "less contained and much more open." In fact, two months after Egypt was born, Keys began writing a few songs by herself. Then she would bounce ideas off longtime collaborator and friend Kerry "Krucial" Brothers.
"It was a very eased-in process that helped me realize one thing," she recalls. "I just wanted to craft great songs and create emotion with incredible songwriting talents. That was the mandate."
As part of that mandate, Keys sought out people she hadn't worked with before. So joining such returning collaborators as Brothers and John Legend are singer/songwriters Bruno Mars and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, producer Salaam Remi, Pop & Oak (whose production credits include Nicki Minaj and Elle Varner), emerging producer/remix artist Jamie xx and fellow U.K. up-and-coming singer/songwriter Emeli Sande, who co- penned "Brand New Me."
Edmonds says it was a phone call invite from Keys' camp that set things in motion for him to fly to Jamaica to collaborate with the singer/songwriter on the simple, acoustic guitar-laced love song "That's When I Knew." The idea for the song came to him as he watched Keys sing and play in the studio.
"I experienced the full essence of who Alicia is, and a song idea clicked with me right then," says Edmonds, who had met the singer only a couple of times beforehand. "Watching her sing, her emotion . . . that's when I knew who she was and how special she is. I call her 'Sunny Vibrations.' You're never sure of how a collaboration is going to go. But writing with her was so easy. We were on the same page in terms of words and melody. She writes from the heart."
"It was fun to experiment with people I hadn't worked with before," Keys says. "With all the new things I've been experiencing, it felt right to push myself and see where it took me."
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Mixing live and programmed elements, the resulting album is both organic and contemporary, accented by heavy drums with electronic and reggae infusions. Leading the charge is the title track. Co-written and co-produced by Keys, Jeff Bhasker and Remi, the single was recorded as a three-track suite: a main version plus two remixes, Inferno and Bluelight. Keys first performed the Inferno version-featuring Nicki Minaj-at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 6 assisted by Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas. With support from not one but two advertising synchs, "Girl on Fire" debuted at No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100, Keys' strongest-ever bow as a lead artist. It's No. 4 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and No. 5 on Adult R&B.
Keys shifts from fiery inspiration to scorching intimacy on "Fire We Make," a duet with Maxwell capped by a remarkable guitar solo from acclaimed Warner Bros. newcomer Gary Clark Jr. And in addition to "Brand New Me," Capitol/EMI's Sande - who released her own debut album earlier this year-collaborated with Keys on two additional songs: the stripped-down "101" and the can't-buy-me-love ballad "Not Even the King." "It's rare in this business to find someone you connect with so naturally in such an electric, creative capacity," says Sande, 25, who first met Keys when she opened the latter's 10th-anniversary Piano & I concert in London. "The first song we wrote together was '101.' It reminds me of the Alicia I fell in love with when I was 15 years old."
The Keys that early fans fell in love with has come a long way from the Hell's Kitchen native and corn-row-rocking ingenue whom Clive Davis introduced in 2001 as his latest J Records music phenomenon. Spurred by the No. 1 R&B and pop single "Fallin'," Keys scored the first five of her 14 Grammy Awards-including best new artist and song of the year-with multiplatinum debut album Songs in A Minor. Since then she has released three more top-selling al- bums (see box, opposite page) as well as the 2005 set MTV Unplugged.
Along the way, she has logged 14 top 10 singles and eight No. 1s on the Hot R&B/ Hip-Hop Songs chart and nine top 10s and four No. 1s on the Hot 100. Among the chart- toppers in that mix are "You Don't Know My Name," "If I Ain't Got You," "My Boo" (featuring Usher), "Like You'll Never See Me Again," platinum-selling singles "No One" and "Empire State of Mind" (with Jay-Z) and the 2010 hit "Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready)," which spent 12 weeks atop Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.