Idol Rising (Toward Individuality): The Element of Freedom by Alicia Keys, with her Unplugged collection

By Daniel Garrett

Alicia Keys, The Element of Freedom
Produced by Alicia Keys
Executive Producers: Alicia Keyes, Jeff Robinson,
Peter Edge, and Kerry “Krucial” Brothers
RCA/Jive (Sony), 2009

Alicia Keys, Unplugged
Produced and directed by Alex Coletti
Executive Producers: Alicia Keys, Peter Edge,
and Jeff Robinson
J Records (Sony), 2005/2006

The singer and pianist Alicia Keys is evolving, and in the ambiguity of her growth others can see suggestions of their own evolution, and claim her: she seems to be moving beyond the appropriation and mastery of established and even predictable cultural forms—forms that focus on attitude and force—to music that seems more personal, evoking a new elegance and sensitivity.  Alicia Keys is developing a style—as evidenced by her album The Element of Freedom—that is both individual and  international.  Contemplation, rather than raw expression, and melody atop a firm beat, rather than easily exhilarating grooves and rhythms, are the virtues she has produced; and one hears—and feels—that her talent has more height, width, and depth.  Her perceived passion and promise are received as if they were principles.



Why do we make so much of music?  Music considers and contains and is a consummation of the human spirit.  Years ago, the philosopher and social scientist William E.B. DuBois wrote about the importance of spirituals to African-Americans as an expression of both pain and hope; and essayist and novelist Richard Wright wrote of the agony and pungent lyricism of the blues; and the trumpeter, essayist, and  novelist Ralph Ellison wrote of  jazz, and the invention and heroic pride of its makers: each wrote of folk music that had achieved a classical dimension, a level of discipline and excellence that any fair, feeling  person could admire.  What had begun as solace or entertainment often by groups of obscure persons became serious art in the hands, voices, and lives of committed individuals.  Individuals seek excellence; and excellence nurtures individuals.  With her album The Element of Freedom, Alicia Keys has written (or co-written) and collected songs that allow her a new intimacy and urgency, a more potent ability to convey the distinction of her own thought; and, consequently, she seems to be walking on her own path, as women before her have done: Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Diahann Carroll, Shirley Horn, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole, Donna Summer, Anita Baker, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Jill Scott, and Beyonce Knowles are women who cultivated their own gardens—they were both gardeners  and flowers.  They resisted the circumscribed lives enemies and strangers, and even family and friends, might have expected or wanted them to have; and they pursued individuality and excellence, becoming flowers that could survive and prosper at home or abroad.  These marvelous artists, from Ethel Waters to Beyonce Knowles, have been women who sang, but some of them also acted and danced, and wrote not only songs but books; and they have been connoisseurs as well as performers and producers—and have spoken casually of the books they read, of the films and theatre and dance they saw, of the music they liked, of the places they have been: in character, mind, act, style and movements, they were, and are, sophisticated women by almost any definition of any era of civilization.



The melodies on Alicia Keys’ album The Element of Freedom are inspired by lyrics and changing moods, and evidence musical creativity and control, rather than a desperate grasping for effect.  In “Love Is Blind,” the first song on The Element of Freedom, Alicia Keys makes plain the difference between reason and emotion, between personal sense and communal vision, for better and worse: “Well, people don’t see what I see, even when they’re right there, standing next to me.  And all of my friends think I’m crazy for loving you.  What they don’t know—there’s nothing else I can do.”  Whom we choose—or feel compelled—to love is often one of the first public signs of our individuality, of what we are willing to accept and where we are willing to go, regardless of the approval of others.  We can  love someone who is older or younger than we are, of a different class or culture; and we can love first one gender, then another.  “Love Is Blind,” written by Alicia Keys with Jeff Bhasker, has a subtle dance rhythm and interesting choral arrangements, creating an atmosphere of heightened (ghostly, sensual)  mood; and beside the voice of Keys, most of  that is achieved with keyboards and synthesizers.  Alicia Keys as narrator does not specify why her friends think she is crazy; and, though there is confusion (“It’s too bad ’cause love is blind. It’s too bad, so sad”) it does not matter, as a boundary has been crossed: “I’m over the edge, there’s no turning back.”  The self has become experimental, open to whatever will occur.



In “Doesn’t  Mean Anything,” penned by Keys with Kerry Brothers Jr., the instrumentation includes piano and electric and acoustic guitars, and with bell-like notes and a fluctuating pace, Alicia Keys compares material wealth with loneliness and prefers love to things: “From afar, seems I had it all, but it doesn’t mean anything, since you’re gone.  Now I see myself through different eyes.”  It is fascinating that she brings perspective and knowledge to the fore as themes in these songs of desire and longing. That desire and longing come in the forms of vivid memory and resignation in “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” a resignation that is in one moment full of conviction and in the next is invaded and reversed by enthusiastic hope.  Against a heavy beat, Keys sings here in a hushed voice, there in a determined voice.  One cannot say too much how alive, and how sincere, Alicia Keys sounds singing the songs on The Element of Freedom.  “Wait ’Til You See My Smile” begins with a pulsating rhythm, and has variety in its instrumental and vocal arrangements.  The resilience and spiritual resource Keys advocates in “Wait ’Til You See My Smile” are hard to doubt, simply because of the words she uses, and the too-familiar situations she evokes—“Don’t they love to see you down?  Kick you while you’re on the ground”—and also as a result of her encouraging, sisterly tone of voice.  Who has not felt that, “People always speculate.  Don’t let it get in your way.  They say things they don’t know”—that people belittle what they do not know, understand, or accept?   What is the best response to that ignorance and cruelty?  Your own perseverance: “Wait ’til they see your smile.”



Alicia Keys is not afraid to be direct in a way that can be considered sweet.  Yet, far from the blues, the excess of romance in “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” an avowal of commitment that uses piano, guitars, violin, viola, and cello, is a song that has divided my loyalty: “All that matters, I’m telling you, is you and me only, and the fortress of love we make.  I’ll be the water you wish for in a desert land” and “I’ll be the woman you need to be a better man.”  Love inspires metaphors, but metaphors are more real on the page, in the song, and in our minds and hearts than in the world; and yet  it is the promise of every lover to try to makes these metaphors, these affirmations, real in the world. Do I see and say that is fantasy, or hope?  As well, the blues—with its descriptions of storms and droughts, of betrayal and loss—as a form, as a sensibility, has been an important influence, a warning, in African-American music and culture, rooted in the fact that, frequently, in a world in which people were not treated fairly based on nothing more than skin color and class, fantasy was a sign of true madness and hope was nearly as delusional, something that could bring danger to self and others.  Hope then becomes a radical thing, a personal liberty.  In a more generous, optimistic time, is hope practical or merely sentimental?



It can seem self-indulgent to be ponderous about the romanticism of a woman singer.  After all, desire and longing are what beautiful, glamorous women are expected to sing about.  I  recall when I made much about Annie Lennox’s song collection Bare, a man—whom I did not know well—remarked that what I was describing did not seem that special to him; and  I have thought that Alicia Key’s achievement in The Element of Freedom reminds me of that of Annie Lennox with Bare: an atmosphere, a mood, and a sense of dynamics that is both musical and personal, are created, in which sound and silence, slow and fast tempos, joy and sorrow, and anger and pleasure, are placed in shifting balances.  The listener is convinced he is hearing revelations.



With a deep, resonantly splashing beat in the ballad “Unthinkable (I’m Ready),”  in a voice that that has a weighty timbre, a tone of uneasy consideration, Alicia Keys sings about the beginning of a relationship, an opportunity she thinks she deserves (her voice is supported by Carlos Alomar on guitar in the song, which was written by Keys with Aubrey Graham, Kerry Brothers, and Noah Shebib); and in the song that follows, “Love Is My Disease,” hope is replaced with anguish (her voice is as dark and as stark as midnight), with the fever and sweat and restlessness of a frustrated addiction; and, in  hearing both, the youthful but forward “Unthinkable” and the worried, wounded “Love Is My Disease,” Keys inspires more belief than doubt.  I can begin to think of Alicia Keys as I have thought about the Scottish Annie Lennox and the African Sade, as someone whose presence is growing not only popular but significant, as an international and transcendent musical figure.  Keys offers a poetic summary—“Love is like the sea, leaves you on your knees.  First you’re floating high, then it takes you, takes you under—in “Like the Sea.”  That has been said before—I happen to like the echoes of experience I hear in the voice of Alicia Keys when she says it.



It is easy to hear how far the lithe, pretty, and talented Alicia Keys has come by listening to her Unplugged collection, which features her performance of songs of some of the artists who came before her: including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Prince; and on which Keys shares the stage with the slender, sleek singer Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and the sunglass-wearing musician and actor Mos Def, the handsome, equally film-ready rapper Common, and singer-songwriter Damian Marley.  On Unplugged, Alicia Keys pursues upbeat rhythms and deep grooves, raucous call-and-response, and  tones that can be both dramatic and funny, but she seems to be trying to fulfill mostly public rather than private expectations, trying to fit into molds that others have made.  She begins with a prayer, then the song “Karma,” with its rushing rhythm, and the quixotic “Heartburn.”  The composition “A Woman’s Worth” is about the recognition (the seeing) of integrity between men and women, of their mutually respectful treatment.  (It includes an Isley Brothers quote.)  In “Unbreakable,” co-written by Kanye West, Alicia Keys identifies particular public images, factual and fictional images, as models of positive behavior, including the images of Will and Jada, Russell and Kimora, famous African-American personalities.  Some songs sound as if they were written by the general (African-American) public and “Unbreakable” is that kind of song, full of common sense and uplift.



As part of Unplugged, Alicia Keys performs Prince’s funky “How Come You Don’t Call Me,” and Gladys Knight’s “If I Was Your Woman,” which she infuses with more sadness than anger or frustration.  (Knight’s version was titled “If I Were Your Woman.)  Keys’ own composition “If I Ain’t Got You” has a nice piano introduction and choral harmonies, and declares fortune and fame are nothing without love.  Aretha Franklin’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” is given warm treatment, but ends in screams declaring pain; and yet the lines “Every night I cry, every night I sigh” maintain craft, cannot be destroyed.  (Yelling and screaming are what people who are incapable of eloquence or self-control regularly do; and artists have imitated that to indicate genuine feeling.  Is that honesty, invention, or a crude, pandering sentimentality; or, is it, possibly, all of these?  It is not art or craft as each has been long, traditionally understood: art has been about evolution, improvement, refinement.  It is an irony that the twentieth-century modern era has used the primitive, the raw, the stupid, and the ugly as invigorating, persuasive powers; and many people are still convinced by that kind of power.)

One of the best performances on Alicia Keys’ Unplugged  is of “Streets of New York (City Life),” which begins with experimental noise and engaging poetic ruminations about game-playing and self-delusion; and, with lines such as “Kindness is brave,” “Looking for satisfaction—it is nowhere, it is everywhere” and “Why are we so afraid of taking charge?” the song captures the spirit of New York, a spirit that is ambitious, challenging, inspiring, and wearying.

On Keys’ Unplugged,  Adam Levine sounds too much like Mick Jagger for my taste on the Jagger-Richards (Rolling Stones) song “Wild Horses” and that likeness is as much an accomplishment as a limitation, but Alicia Keys herself possesses the song, their duet.  The artists who emerged in the 1960s, such as the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin, continue to cast very large shadows, but artists have emerged, and are emerging, who can create their own heat and light; and Keys is likely to be celebrated as one of them.  “I won’t tell your secrets” Keys assures in “Diary”; and the infatuation of a discerning woman with an interesting stranger, and an imagined encounter between them, are described in “You Don’t Know My Name,” which has a lot of “baby, baby, baby” refrains.  Meandering is the piece called “Stolen Moments,” though its pursuit of melody is appreciated; and “Fallin’” is dramatic, with its riveting romantic reversals.  The Unplugged performance ends with Keys in collaboration with Mos Def, Common, and Damian Marley, the kind of thing I accept as a (self-authorizing; mutual) gesture of presumably cool community.  The Unplugged album is a document of the apprenticeship of Alicia Keys: and her album The Element of Freedom is proof that the apprenticeship is ending.

On one of  the songs on The Element of Freedom, “Put It in a Love Song,” Alicia Keys is joined by Beyonce Knowles, who has become—with Keys—one of the most exciting performers (one knows that Beyonce has become an enviable success because some critics have begun to find fault with her in a way that is suspect: they claim because she is very popular, there must be something wrong with her work).  The gorgeous Beyonce Knowles embodies confidence and energy, and she has created stories in song in which women face conflict and emerge victorious.  In “Put It in a Love Song,” co-written by Keys and Kas Dean, singers Knowles and Keys offer advice to men: confess your love in as many ways as there are; and together the two young women create a rhythm that—like Keys and Knowles—will leave behind any who cannot keep up.

The End of Freedom closes with “This Bed,” “Distance and Time,” “How It Feels to Fly” and Keys’ solo version of her collaboration with the rapper Jay-Z (Shawn Carter), Beyonce’s husband, the song “Empire State of Mind” (labeled part two, “Broken Down”).  In “The Bed,” a high-voiced Keys sings “These king-size sheets need more than just a queen in between them”; and Keys is resolute and somber in “Distance and Time,” awaiting the return of her beloved (Keys, who plays both piano and organ in the song, dedicates it to people who have been separated; and one can imagine the separation of college or war or another duty).  There is the resource of individuality in “How It Feels to Fly,” when “In a room full of people, it feels like no one’s around,” and yet Keys’ voice is subtly surrounded by a choir.  In “Empire State of Mind,” there are one too many clichés for me but I still like lines such as “Now you’re in New York, these streets will make you feel brand new” and “Someone sleeps tonight with the hunger for more than an empty fridge” and nothing beats the evolving and soaring voice of Alicia Keys.

Daniel Garrett is a writer who remains dazzled by diverse literary forms; and he has written fiction, essays, and poetry.  His work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, Identity Theory, Offscreen, Pop Matters, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.  He has written about books, films, and music for The Compulsive Reader.