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Alicia Keys promises fire, but delivers clinical cool

Big-budget cohorts wash out the passion of the singer-songwriter’s over-curated fifth album.

Andrew Timms/The Associated Press

2.5 out of 4 stars

Girl on Fire
Alicia Keys

This girl. Let me tell you about this girl. She is Alicia Keys, a photogenic, piano-bound singer-songwriter who makes affecting, empowering, lady-like soul music. She sells tons.

This girl's fifth album was prefaced by the lead-single title track, here presented as a remix with rap verses added from the mouthy Nicki Minaj. The track is backboned by the room-rattling thump of Billy Squire's appropriately titled song from 1980, Big Beat. The chorus is strikingly declarative – "this girl is on fire," as if written in blazing letters in the sky.

However, on this album, this girl is not on fire. Firemen warn her against false alarms. There are no singe marks left on the piano stool.

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This girl recruits John Legend, Bruno Mars, Frank Ocean and the Scottish sensation Emeli Sandé for song-writing support. This girl can afford them.

This girl plays the "reinvention" card, though there is not a wealth of evidence to support that conceit. Her Brand New Kind of Me is a standard in the making – an elegant ballad with a hard chorus, co-written by Sandé. This boy can imagine it being sung wonderfully by Bonnie Raitt, though Keys is more than capable on lines about personal braveness and independence.

This girl suffers from an orthopaedic disorder that causes her arms to turn unnaturally inward, if the cover photo is any indication. This girl spends enough money on hairstyle, wardrobe and makeup to feed an African village for seven months. In her liner notes, this girl suggests we donate $5 to her organization, Keep a Child Alive.

This girl does sound brand new on the modern jazz bravado of When It's All Over. The beats are programmed by the xx's Jamie Smith. The baby talk comes from son Egypt, who is inappropriately named and just too cute by half.

This girl's emphatic punctuation is on fire. By unofficial count, the liner notes are filled with more than 80 sentences ending with exclamation marks. Some use four (for quadruple emphasis).

This girl has shrewd taste in electric guitarists. Gary Clark, Jr. scribbles inventively on an otherwise drab, breathy duet with lover-man Maxwell, who is forced, perhaps by the business end of a red-hot poker, to offer such lines as "like a moth to a flame, I can't stay away." The song's title, Fire We Make, promises more than it delivers.

There is a lot of that here from this girl, a highly manicured artist expert in immaculate R&B. Warmth is not her thing. And I don't think this girl has much new to say, no matter how beautifully she presents her craft or herself.

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More new releases

  • Leisure Life
  • Gentleman Reg
  • Heavy Head/Outside
  • Three and a half stars

Billy Corgan might dance well with Cat Stevens, if he would only let it happen or if circumstances came to be. On a confident album of melody, candour and bright punch, a true-aiming Gentleman Reg endorses serendipitous bumps and basic human connections. True Drunk is jagged, synthed and dreamy. Blinds are drawn on the sweet and moody Solo Shows, a sublime and observant character study in slow, falsetto soul. This guy's voice is unique and required, without an ounce of nonsense or flab. Gentleman Reg is the blindside some of us have been waiting for – now is the time to let this beautiful man occur. Brad Wheeler

Gentleman Reg plays Ottawa's Pressed Café, Dec. 1; Toronto's Gladstone Hotel, Dec. 2, with Ontario dates to follow in Windsor, London, Guelph, Hamilton and Peterborough.

  • Tiga
  • Non Stop
  • PIAS/Different
  • Three stars

The deluge of free DJ mixes on the internet has raised the bar for mix-CDs exponentially. Tiga – a producer, DJ and owner of Montreal label Turbo (Azari & III, Chromeo) – could have slapped his friends' singles together with a few cheeky crowd-pleasers and called it a set. To be sure, his label is well represented, with Duke Dumont and Terence Fixmer's tracks contributing to Non Stop's gritty, rough-and-ready vibe, as well as three of Tiga's own cuts ranging from the stark, minimal The Picture to the outright fromage of Plush. But as with all things disco, early house and Kraftwerk (who are referenced in the album's title), behind the campy exterior, there's a serious commitment to the funk. Dave Morris

  • JAZZ
  • Night
  • Holly Cole
  • Rumpus Room/Universal
  • Three and a half stars

This is quite a Night, stretching from the Gallic schmaltz of Jacques Brel to the warped blues of Captain Beefheart while somehow leaving room for both Viva Las Vegas and If You Could Read My Mind. But its most impressive aspect is the music's consistency, as Cole stitches each disparate scrap into a coherent whole, one that delivers both a sultry, late-night groove and a surprisingly perky sense of melody. And while Cole understands the music's pop appeal, she doesn't let that define her performances, choosing instead to see each as an opportunity for the sort of self-expression that can only be called jazz. J.D. Considine

  • POP
  • Harmony
  • Serena Ryder
  • Serenader Source/EMI
  • Three stars

And so now we'll call her a diva. A chanteuse. The big-voiced favourite daughter of Millbrook, Ont., ups the stakes on her latest album, a professionally produced affair that has her classy like Bassey, swell like Adele and, well, Winehouse-y like Winehouse. The lead single, Stompa, is a fun, clomping thing that puts a spring in your step, but the perfectly constructed Fall is more representative of Ryder's smokey take on modern retro pop. The multi-part Baby Come Back mixes claps and modern beats to grand-stage torch, with a delicately lavish outro bringing it home. Please Baby Please will be too syrupy for some, and Mary Go Round is not a step forward. Mostly, though, Harmony comes together in the true sense of that word. B.W.

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