Alicia Keys has a new album, "Girl on Fire." (Andrew Timms / MTV Crashes…)
Within the first few moments of Alicia Keys' new album, "Girl on Fire," it's clear that this artist once labeled the new queen of Soul is now emulating the confidence needed to fulfill that role.
"It's been a while, I'm not who I was before / You looked surprised, your words don't burn me anymore," she sings in "Brand New Me" over her trademark R&B piano playing. "Been meaning to tell you, but I guess it's clear to see / Don't be mad, it's just the brand new kind of me."
"There is no mystery … it's severely honest. Every line means exactly what it means," Keys said by phone from London, where she performed the track for Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Show earlier this month. "There's no hidden message — I mean it's pretty straightforward."
This honesty, both in conversation and on the album's tracks, are part of a brand new Keys.
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Almost three years have passed since her last album, "The Element of Freedom," but the 31-year-old feels "quantum leaps and bounds" removed from that time period.
"I can't keep count. I definitely know I have a 2-year-old son, so that says a lot," she laughs. "We are definitely light-years from my last record, and definitely my first one. But it's a natural evolution at the same time."
Part of her evolution included becoming a wife (she's married to songwriter-rapper-producer Swizz Beatz), mother and taking the reins of her career by parting ways with longtime manager Jeff Robinson, all in 2010.
She's also kept busy with a host of projects, including producing a Broadway play, directing a short film, designing shoes for Reebok, launching an iPhone/iPad app for kids and producing an upcoming big screen flick with Jennifer Hudson attached to star, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete."
Despite so much change, it's still difficult to grasp that Keys, who is a decade into a career that boasts more than 35 millions records sold and 14 Grammys, is still settling in. But with "Girl on Fire," Keys says she has finally found herself.
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"I think its mostly just stepping into your womanhood," she said. "I knew I was going to call the album 'Girl on Fire' the minute that the song was done. It felt so right and accurate for what I've been going through and what I've been feeling.
"[The album] is really about finding your own passion, finding your own flow and standing in your own space. And just being fully and completely yourself."
One of pop music's most tried and true marketing gimmicks is to tout an artist's latest project as his or her "most personal work to date." But Keys' undeniable authenticity makes it easy to believe she means it.
Keys arrived in 2001 with the auspicious "Songs in A Minor." Barely out of her teens, the native of New York's Hell's Kitchen area with long cornrows, tomboy swagger and a major push from music industry mogul Clive Davis garnered critical approval right out of the box. Her debut balanced classical piano lines, R&B, soul and jazz with achingly personal love anthems such as "A Woman's Worth" and "Fallin.'"
"Songs in A Minor" debuted at No. 1 and went on to earn Keys five Grammys. Her stock has only continued to soar with three additional albums, each of which has gone platinum.
Although "Girl on Fire" reveals Keys at her most vulnerable, it also finds her at her most collaborative. Here she works with Frank Ocean, Bruno Mars, Maxwell, Salaam Remi, Pop & Oak, Jamie xx, Emeli Sandé and Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds. She admits that the new way of working took her out of her comfort zone.
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"I never was really so open to doing collaborations in that way, but now in addition to everything else, it felt incredible to do," Keys said. "It was very freeing."
The result is an impressive blend of Keys' hallmark classical riffs and R&B-pop melodies with a fresh mix of genre-blending instrumentation.
There's the electronic drip of the Jamie xx-produced "When It's All Over" (equipped with a cute cameo from Egypt, her 2-year-old son with Swizz), the reggae-tinged "Limitedless" and the scorching quiet storm of "Fire We Make," a duet with Maxwell featuring a rollicking guitar solo from buzzy strummer Gary Clark Jr.
Keys even tapped Nicki Minaj to drop in on one of three versions she released of the title track. The single, which samples Billy Squier's "The Big Beat," peaked at No. 4 on Billboard's R&B/hip-hop chart.
"I've admired Alicia and her work for a long time, so when she invited me to first sit in, I was totally ready," Clark said. "She's super laid back and easy to flow with in the studio, making things as smooth as I've ever experienced."
Peter Edge, RCA's chief executive, said the album was about showcasing Keys as a risk taker. "She's broken out from the things that people might expect from her for this album," he said. "She's always been very true to herself as an artist from Day 1, when I met her when she was 14 making her own music. She's in a different place where she's feeling creative freedom with the confidence that comes with the years of making music and having achieved so much."
"Every album has been personal and of the moment," Keys said. "I think this album is the most personal so far because I have stepped into a more comfortable space where I'm able to be open and clear of what I want to say and how to say it. In that way, it's deeper. But it's still the same energy I've given."
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