At the start of her career, Alicia Keys was touted as the antidote to R&B diva excess, her classically trained piano skills and thoughtful songwriting suggesting a route beyond the routine tropes of the genre.
Four albums on, it's hard to discern the reasons for that initial optimism, Keys having been almost completely subsumed into the standard R&B formula. The Element of Freedom – a reference to the fewer restraints she felt working in her home studio – is dominated by unremarkable loser-in-love fare such as "Love Is Blind" and "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart", the latter featuring a peculiar combination of limpid piano and bruising beat, over which Alicia all but metamorphoses into Whitney right before your ears. She has a knack for melodic hooks – the steadily circling piano of "Doesn't Mean Anything" wouldn't be out of place on a Coldplay album – but the beats devised by Keys and her co-producer Kerry "Krucial" Brothers are brutally insensitive, okay emphasising the assertive theme of her Beyoncé duet, "Put It in a Love Song", but ill-equipped for the timidity of "Un-Thinkable". And the album's underlying assumption that desire and dignity might not be mutually exclusive seems fanciful at best, snobbish at worst.
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