It's a brand new Alicia Keys on 'Girl on Fire'

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

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 — in conversation and on the album's tracks — are part of a brand new Keys.

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 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 million records sold and 14 Grammys, is still settling in. But with “Girl on Fire,” Keys says she has found herself.

“I think it's 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, 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 Sande and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. She admits that the new way of working took her out of her comfort zone.

“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.

The result is an impressive blend of Keys' hallmark classical riffs and R&B-pop melodies with a fresh mix of genre-blending instrumentation.

Gerrick D. Kennedy is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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