Alicia Keys doesn't waste any time clearing things up.

"Don't be mad," she sings to open "Girl on Fire" (RCA) after a short interlude. "It's just a brand new kind of me."

She's not kidding. After the disappointing "The Element of Freedom" album, where Keys seemed to compromise her usually strong artistic vision to create a more easily digestible (read: blander) brand of soul-tinged pop, "Girl on Fire" finds Keys feistier and more determined than ever.

Starting with "Brand New Me," Keys returns to the piano-based balladeering that made her a Grammy-winning star, though she is stretching that formula once again. Sometimes, as in "Brand New Me," she does it with more aggressive lyrics. Sometimes, as in the gorgeous neo-soul of her duet with Maxwell ("Fire We Make") or the dance-floor anthem "New Day," she does it musically.

And, to her credit, it all works. Even the title track, which has worn out its welcome on the super-annoying Citibank commercial, sounds fresh, thanks to a remix and verses from Nicki Minaj.

Keys is at her best on "Tears Always Win," a '60s-style soul ballad wrenching in its simplicity, that encapsulates everything she does well in less than four minutes. She brings her past influences into the present, twisting it into something new, singing it dramatically without going over-the-top.

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"Girl on Fire" is arguably Keys' best album yet, the kind of triumph that comes only when you're not out to prove anything, when your potential turns into actual mastery of your craft.


"Girl on Fire"


BOTTOM LINE Finding her soul again