Sunday, February 10, 2008

CD Review: As I Am by Alicia Keys

On her two previous studio albums, Alicia Keys developed a style that was contemporary R&B with influences from old-school R&B/Soul and hip-hop. Well, hip-hop is tossed away and the old-school influence is much more prominent on her latest album, As I Am. The result is a pretty solid album but also one that sometimes feels like it's missing something.

The opening sound on As I Am is the sound of a needle being put on a record which immediately lets you know what's in store. A good portion of the album consists of Alicia Keys putting her own spin on classic R & B sounds. “Like You'll Never See Me Again” floats over a piano groove that sounds very close to the ending melody of “Purple Rain.” The background vocals of “Where Do We Go From Here” are reminiscent of the girl groups of the 1960's. A sample from “(Girl) I Love You” by The Temprees is turned into a jam on “Teenage Love Affair.”

When she isn't referencing old-school R&B, Keys goes towards more of the pop route than her earlier albums. Much of this material is produced by Linda Perry, who is best known for revitalizing Christina Aguilera's sound. Perry goes for an earthier sound with more of a focus on Keys' voice. This approach works well on “Superwoman,” which plays to Keys' strengths and has a nice melody.

The album's closer “Sure Looks Good To Me,” however, has Keys trying to find her inner diva with mixed results. While it's nice to hear her voice tested like that (and without a lot of obvious strain like on “No One”), it just feels like she's trying too hard. Her voice isn't quite big enough to make this song a showstopper the way other vocalists could.

By dropping hip-hop elements and forgoing the sounds of popular contemporary R & B, Alicia Keys seems to be reestablishing herself on As I Am. Since she has always embraced old-school R & B, this album doesn't sound like Keys trying to jump on the retro bandwagon.

The main issue with As I Am is that in streamlining her sound, some energy is lost. With her earlier albums, you got the sense that Keys was trying to address all her influences which kept things fresh. In comparison, there are times on As I Am that, no matter how good the song is, things feel a little boring. A track like “Lesson Learned,” featuring John Mayer, comes close to sounding tired as opposed to relaxed.

With this album, Alicia Keys proves that she is not one keen on repeating herself which is something that will keep her around for a long time.

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