Alicia Keys can be forgiven if she is no longer content to
serve as leader of the neo-soul pack. Not that she’s abandoned the plaintive
songs of star-crossed romance and the slow-burning, piano-driven ballads that
spurred the success of 2003’s introspective Diary. If anything, As I Am
finds the 27-year-old prodigy continuing down a hook-laden path toward
self-discovery, accompanied again by longtime songwriting partner Kerry “Krucial”
Brothers. It’s just that her attempts at emotional candor have rarely seemed so
calculated, or her forays into radio-friendly pop so pedestrian.
Take “Superwoman,” one of
three collaborations with
professional hitmaker Linda Perry that seem less inspired than manufactured.
Even Keys, whose casually seductive vocals often help to mask her lyrical
shortcomings, cannot redeem such wooden sentimentality. “No one knows me
underneath these clothes, but I can fly,” she sings unconvincingly. Elsewhere,
her approach remains resolutely upbeat. “Everything’s gonna be all right,” she
insists in the hackneyed, happy-go-lucky chorus to “No One,” the album’s first
single. Keys’ sudden infatuation with generic, midtempo beats and heavy
keyboard hooks isn’t necessarily cause for such optimism.
And yet there are memorable moments,
too. Set against a lush
background of rollicking piano and swirling bass riffs, “Teenage Love Affair”
is a revelation, joyful and innocent enough to recall vintage Jackson 5. “Go
Ahead,” a bitter missive to a not-so-dearly-departed ex, finds Keys at her
venomous best, channeling her rage into a slow, simmering groove that builds to
a crashing climax. Both serve notice that though Keys may still be green in the
R&B game, she remains formidable even as a work in progress.