CD Review of As I Am by Alicia Keys
Recommended if you like
Mary J. Blige, Oleta Adams,
Lauryn Hill
Label
J Records
Alicia Keys: As I Am

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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F
or her third studio release, Keys has opted to shake things up, not only musically – her focus has shifted to more of a pop/R&B hybrid than the neo-soul she became known for – but visually, ditching the baggy clothes and cornrows of albums past for a less strident, more glamorous look. If you take your cues from album titles, then this new sound and image are more representative of the artist as she is; unfortunately, some listeners may come away from As I Am wishing for a little more artifice.

It’s worth mentioning up front that the album’s first single, “No One,” is a hit for a reason. Powered by a classic arrangement and Keys’ newly deepened, pleasantly raspy howl, the song is as timeless a declaration of love as any to reach radio in the last year – maybe even the last five years. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear J Records’ executives high-fiving each other the first time they heard the track in the boardroom; leadoff singles with this much power and broad appeal are a rare gift. Keys has never been a particularly gifted lyricist, but that works to her advantage here – lines like “No one, no one, no one / Can get in the way of what I feel for you” are given the perfect vehicle with her passionate, full-throated delivery. It’s a song she should look forward to performing at every gig she plays for the rest of her career.

If the line between “No One” and the album’s other tracks is less than taut, that’s perhaps to be expected, but it’s no less disappointing. In widening her artistic net, Keys has opened herself up to interesting experiments, like the punchy, pocket-driven “I Need You” – but a few of these songs should have been thrown back. The album would have been much better off, for instance, without “Superwoman,” a Linda Perry co-write that’s meant to be an empowering and uplifting anthem for the fairer sex, but stumbles badly on lines like “Even when I’m a mess / I put on a vest with an S on my chest / Oh yes / I’m a superwoman.” Not even Helen Reddy would have recorded this crap, and on a 14-song album, its presence certainly wasn’t needed. Likewise the corny “Teenage Love Affair,” which finds Keys doodling in her notebook (“Your last name / My first / I’m your Mrs.”) and stopping at third base. As far as teen abstinence songs go, it isn’t “Let’s Wait Awhile”; hell, it might not even be “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.”

A number of the album’s other tracks are simply ordinary – songs such as “I Need You” and “Sure Looks Good to Me” aren’t sore thumbs like “Superwoman” and “Teenage Love Affair,” but they aren’t particularly memorable, either. As a whole, the record is curiously soft; much of it lacks the kind of bite we’ve come to expect from Keys, and it’s stuffed with a distressing amount of filler. Still, even if it doesn’t feel like the kind of album that took four years to complete, parts of As I Am suggest that Keys has yet to show us what she can really do. Don’t fault her for trying something new – and at the very least, make sure you download “No One.”

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