Can a great soul singer survive at a time when pop music is so post-human, the word soul may be irrelevant? Now that even Taylor Swift is flirting with dubstep, Euro DJs and electronic production have largely eliminated the need for classically trained starlets to practice their arpeggios. So where does that leave Alicia Keys? Her latest album, Girl on Fire, finds her experimenting with younger, cooler collaborators — Emeli Sandé, Gary Clark Jr., Jamie xx — and trunk-rattling beats. (Check the title track’s Billy Squier stomp and the thundering drumline on ”New Day.”) But mostly this is her chance to prove that old-school ballads still matter; no electro-house breakdowns required.
Some of Girl on Fire’s best moments come down to just Keys and her piano. It opens with an instrumental (”De Novo Adagio”) and segues into the triumphant ”Brand New Me,” where she shows off her trills and her cocky attitude (”Don’t be mad/It’s just a brand new kind of me/And it ain’t bad”). There are one too many jazzy smoothfests before she returns to the bench on ”Not Even the King,” but when she does, the music feels surprisingly intimate. You can hear her take a deep breath and press down the pedal before she starts to sing. Her voice is raspier than before, which only makes it more affecting: She’s lived through a lot lately, including the birth of her son, Egypt, who babbles into the mic on ”When It’s All Over.” And yet, when it comes to pure Juilliard-worthy talent, the ”brand new” Alicia Keys sounds a lot like the old one. But don’t be mad. That ain’t bad at all. B