Alicia Keys finds "freedom" from Motown sound

Fri Dec 18, 2009 4:44pm EST
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By Joshua Schneyer

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A music industry desperate for bankable superstars has all but anointed Alicia Keys as heir to the golden era of Motown, when Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and others made it seem easy to pump out timeless R&B hits.

Keys, however, is haunted by the prospect.

"The Motown era, the songs did something to you that you couldn't get enough of, they sent the hairs on your skin standing up and taught you about what love really is and life is," Keys, the 28-year-old hitmaker, told Reuters. "I think about it, all the time."

In many ways, Keys' fourth and newest album that hit stores this week, "The Element of Freedom," is a rebellious thrust away from a Nu-Motown sound that helped to win many fans.

Keys' earlier albums were filled with pleading love songs belted-out in her raspy voice, backed by her gospel-inflected piano playing. While "Element of Freedom" offers fewer soul-baring moments from behind the piano, it serves up many catchy, ringtone-worthy melodies, crunchy drum beats and synthesized grooves.

In the single, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," Keys hits unmistakable pop pay dirt. The drum machine and organ sound like something from Prince's early 1980s playbook. And a duet with Beyonce, "Put It In a Love Song," might pack nightclub dance floors with its strong, bottom-heavy beat.

Keys' solo version of a recent collaboration with Beyonce's husband, Jay-Z, "Empire State of Mind," also appears on the record. The swaggering rap Jay-Z lent to the original track is absent, but Keys' smooth vocals keep the track a compelling, if less energetic, New York City anthem.


<p>Singer Alicia Keys poses for a portrait while promoting her new album "The Element of Freedom" in New York December 17, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>