The reigning diva-glitz aesthetic campy, prurient, pantsless has served the Gagas, Fergies, and Katy Perrys of the world very well in 2009. Alicia Keys, however, has never really been that outré girl, bombastic Jay-Z duets and the occasional Lycra jumpsuit aside.
Instead, over four albums she's established herself as an increasingly rare thing in pop music: the class act. It's made her a consistently gratifying album artist, if not always an immediately dazzling one. The Element of Freedom's first single, the pensive love-is-the-drug ballad ''Doesn't Mean Anything,'' seemed to get lost among its more aggressive chart peers when it was released in late September. The second, ''Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,'' doesn't deserve the same fate. It's insidiously, almost obscenely hooky: a slithering riff on early-'80s Prince with a monster synth line. What Keys' often-banal lyrics lack, her quicksilver voice carries: bluesy and subterranean on the atmospheric opener, ''Love Is Blind''; pure honeyed uplift on ''Wait 'Til You See My Smile'' and ''That's How Strong My Love Is''; ragged with longing on ''Love Is My Disease,'' a stirring semisequel to her '07 smash ''No One.'' ''Put It in a Love Song,'' a saucy duet with Beyoncé, is fun, though not entirely in sync with the record's lush, midtempo vibe. Keys' material is ultimately about the slow reveal, not the instant blitz. If Element asks for patience, it also earns it. A-
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