“I’ll never be perfect, but at least now I’m brave,” Alicia Keys sings on her new single, “Brand New Me.” The confessional track from Girl on Fire, the pop star’s fifth chart-topping album, is a textbook example of what the Grammy winner does best: R&B-imbued piano balladry with a tasteful nod to the club. That silky, infectious marriage of worlds has defined the Manhattan native’s decorated career, from her neo-soul breakthrough, “Fallin’,” to the mature, mid-tempo lament “Doesn’t Mean Anything.” Like a fine single malt, Keys’s coo is a soothing tonic that goes down easy (almost too easy) with a slow burn that can comfort a wounded heart or ease the pangs of a shitty work day.
While the formula may not scream bravery, the new album puts forward an emboldened, if not wiser, version of the chanteuse. In 2009, Keys momentarily replaced Angelina Jolie as the most scorned woman in celebrity triflin’ when reports emerged of a romantic relationship between the singer and married hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz, whom she wed after news of the relationship hit gossip rags (a son, Egypt, soon followed). It seems the scrutiny not only strengthened her backbone but also lent her music a greater sense of grace as heard on tracks “Not Even the King” and “That’s When I Knew.”
Yet Keys loses us with the Swizz-produced pop anthem “New Day,” a disingenuous attempt to tap into some of Rihanna’s market share. Good thing she’s always got “Empire State of Mind” to fall back on.