Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Alicia Keys

  • Songs in A Minor [J, 2001] A-
  • The Diary of Alicia Keys [J, 2003] Dud
  • As I Am [J, 2007] *
  • The Element of Freedom [J, 2009] B
  • Girl on Fire [RCA, 2012] **
  • Here [RCA, 2016] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Songs in A Minor [J, 2001]
The minor in question is the keys-sweeping Keys, not yet 21, who earns the musty "classically trained" as if it was bequeathed her by Donny Hathaway. Enough song doctors show up in parentheses to make the realist in me wonder just exactly how finished the material she'd begun at 14 was when she signed her deal. But the same realist notes that Brian McKnight gets sole credit for one of the bores that threaten to sink the project midway through, just as Keys does for one of those that buoy it back up at the end. And the grace and grit with which the first half skirts gentility would merit the musty "auspicious debut" regardless. If only Donny Hathaway had been so unassuming. A-

The Diary of Alicia Keys [J, 2003] Dud

As I Am [J, 2007]
Nice girl holds out ("Teenage Love Affair," "Wreckless Love"). *

The Element of Freedom [J, 2009]
It's far from a shock but definitely a disappointment to watch Ms. Trained Pianist survey her branding options and choose the bland card over the brains card. There are at least three catchy numbers here--the two lead singles plus the consciously silly "Say It in a Love Song," which had better be--and it's not like she remains calm elsewhere. On the contrary, she goes for melismatic pain whenever she sees an opening. But this is formal ploy merely, a diva-by-default's privilege. Her true self comes out in the half-heartedly relentless "Wait Til You See My Smile," a stab at the chin-up franchise once claimed by a young Mariah Carey, and the first thing newcomers will notice even though it's the last track on the album: an inspirational, evasive "Empire State of Mind" sequel that establishes Jay-Z's vocal and spiritual superiority so decisively it's hard to imagine her ever attending a Yankees game again. B

Girl on Fire [RCA, 2012]
Heartfelt, lively, and sweet--as r&b maturity statements go ("Girl on Fire," "One Thing") **

Here [RCA, 2016]
One reason this is her best album since she was a kid is that it extends her nice upbringing into a sphere that's simultaneously raw and political. But a bigger reason is that Swizz Beats defines the funk her adventures in gospel grit demand, evoking Memphis thump while remaining so hip-hop that the samples stay in Nas-Wu-Tribe territory. Lyrically, it sometimes stumbles--cosmetics mess with a girl's identity, we get it. But the beats lend bite and gravity to homilies about mother earth and mother love that bear all the repeating they can stand. A-

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