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Alicia Keys Pursues Freedom, On Album And In Life
“The Element of Freedom” is more than just the title to Alicia Keys’ fifth album.
It’s the motto by which she guides her career.
“I think I just always have been the type of person who wants to be able to try new things with every creative thing that I do,” explains Keys, 29. “I want to do something new. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m boxed in in any way.”
Even, she says, if it means there are “risks” involved. To that end, “The Element of Freedom” is the first of her albums not to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart (blame Susan Boyle), and none of its four singles have cracked the Top 20 — though she was part of a chart-topping smash last fall as the singing voice on Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind.” Nevertheless, “The Element” is still her fifth platinum-or-better release in the U.S. and has worldwide sales of nearly 2 million copies.
“It is a very different record for me,” acknowledges Keys, who was born Alicia Augello-Cook in New York and has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and notched 11 Top 10 hits, as well as logging film roles in “Smokin’ Aces,” “The Nanny Diaries” and “The Secret Life of Bees.” “I’m constantly trying new things and new sounds and new elements and new feelings. I just continue to stretch myself.
“So that’s definitely one of the reasons I called the album, ‘The Element of Freedom.’ I just really felt like that came through very clearly on all the songs.”
Approaching “The Element” as executive producer, Keys says she “just wanted to let every song take its own direction” as she worked with longtime collaborator and former paramour Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, co-writing with producers Jeff Bhasker, Noah “40” Shebib and reported current squeeze Swizz Beats.
“I definitely left it very open and spontaneous and, really, anything is possible,” Keys explains. “I didn’t turn anything away or any thoughts or any creative ideas before I just allowed it to go as far as it could go. And from that point on, it gave me such a good feeling and it gave me this responsibility, y’know — creating music, I feel.”
The creative process took awhile, too. In fact, Keys — who experimented with an array of piano and keyboard sounds throughout the album — pushed back the album’s release date a couple of times in order to go back in and record more material.
“As it got closer,” Keys recalls, “we decided there were just so many new songs I was still creating. It seemed unfair to have to rush these songs that were still coming and not allow them to be the best songs they could be. It was just two weeks difference, but it made for an even better record.”
Among those latecomers were the tracks “How It Feels to Fly,” “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready),” which features a guest appearance by Canadian singer/rapper Drake and “Put It in a Love Song,” a collaboration with Beyoncé that Beatz co-wrote and produced. Beyoncé and Keys go back to the latter’s days at Columbia Records, which is still Beyoncé’s home, and they’ve also toured together. A duet, Keys says, was inevitable — and natural.
“We’ve become friends,” Keys notes, “and there’s always been a mention of ‘When would we be able to do a song together?’ It was all about timing. This particular song started coming together, and it just felt so good — just electric and exciting, and so we wanted her to hear it.”
Keys played the song over the phone to Beyoncé, who was in Europe at the time, and they arranged to record it on the one day both performers were going to be in New York City at the same time.
“We met up in the studio and the vibe was so incredible,” remembers Keys, who filmed a video for the song with Beyoncé in Brazil. “To be there at the same time is so rare now; with technology you can do it anywhere. But it was amazing; the energy was incredible and the vibe was unbelievable.
“Our friendship is just really, really cool and great, so it was, like, the perfect zone and the record just took on the perfect energy, and there it is.”
“The Element” also continues Keys’ relationship with “Empire State of Mind” in the form of “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down,” which she recorded as a sung musical piece, sans Jay-Z’s rapping, for a decidedly different kind of song.
“I love, love, love that record — the original — and to be able to be part of what people are calling the new New York anthem is unbelievable,” explains Keys, who’s performed the song with Jay-Z before the second game of the 2009 World Series at Yankee Stadium and during the American Music Awards. “And then to be able to see the way that it affects the world everywhere I go is just insane. It’s beautiful.
“So I definitely wanted to give my version of it and my vision of how I see New York and how it feels to me. I wanted to do it for my style — more broken down, more on piano, more voice and intimacy — so that’s what I did. I imagined, ‘If I was able to sing this whole song, how would I do it?’ So I just sat down at my piano and I kind of broke it down and started singing about New York as I see it, and it turned out great.”
Keys plans on playing plenty of “The Element” during her concerts this year, but even while she’s on the road, she’ll be juggling other creative opportunities — producing a “music-based” TV program for NBC and a film about a female disc jockey. Keys is also “developing some Broadway concepts and ideas” but offers no specifics other than a desire “to bring a new style to the mix.”
And she’s developing a new company called AK Worldwide, whose slogan is “The Business of Inspiration” and will be an umbrella for everything from charitable initiatives (including Keys’ Keep A Child Alive foundation) to a new “inspirational” Web site called IAmASuperwoman.com and a jewelry line called the Barber’s Daughters.
“I’ve learned a lot from Oprah Winfrey,” Keys says, “just by seeing the way she can affect the world in such a beautiful way, no matter what she does. That’s definitely what I want to do. The music does it, in some ways, but I think there can be so much ... more.”
Alicia Keys and Melanie Fiona perform at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (March 5-6) at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $48-128. Call 313-471-6611 or visit www.olympiaentertainment.com
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