When Alicia Keys declared herself a "Superwoman" on her last album - with an "S" on her chest, oh, yes! - she certainly had good reason. She had competed by herself, more or less, against one prefab pop singer after another with teams of handlers and armies of producers and songwriters for the better part of a decade and come out on top. From "Fallin' " to "No One," Keys had proven she was the real deal.
Maybe that's why "The Element of Freedom" (J) sounds a bit disappointing and shockingly incomplete. Though Keys is in fine voice, as usual, and has constructed even more of her trademark soaring soul anthems, the bulk of them sound a little short.
The first single "Doesn't Mean Anything" ends up being prophetic. It sounds big and feels important, but it lacks passion and an interesting point of view. It's a pattern she repeats throughout the heart of "Freedom," in the equally bland follow-up "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart" and the sweet-sounding emptiness of "How It Feels to Fly."
Keys does get a boost from the power couple of Jay-Z and Beyoncé. B's appearance on "Put It in a Love Song" pushes Keys to try something different in her phrasing and her rhythms, while the inspirational influence of Jay-Z rubs off on Keys for "Empire State of Mind (Part II)," reminding us how essential her chorus is to that smash hit.
"The Element of Freedom" shows that even Superwoman can run into some creative Kryptonite every now and then.
"The Element of Freedom"
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THE GRADE B-
BOTTOM LINE "Freedom" rings a little hollow