Alicia Keys singing at Mandalay Bay

Fire consumes and destroys, but the ashes left in its wake also catalyze rebirth.

It’s this latter phenomenon that the lady on the phone is elaborating upon.

Alicia Keys describes herself as a full-fledged woman these days.

The difference?

Now, she’s a mother, a wife, a “Girl on Fire,” as the title of her latest album suggests.

“I think it’s just being able to find my place in life and being in a whole new space,” Keys explains. “It’s really being able to understand who I am and what choices I want to make, what life I want to live. It’s definitely empowering. I think all of that life happening came through on this record. It’s just a bolt of energy.”

“It’s been a while / I’m not who I was before,” Keys sings in a near-whisper, her voice accompanied only by tendrils of piano, on “Brand New Me,” the first song on “Girl on Fire.” “I found me, I found me, yeah!” she sings later. “I’ll never be perfect / But at least now I’m brave / I can finally breathe.”

As her words indicate, “Girl on Fire” feels like an extended exhale from Keys.

“I never been this good / Not ever / Not ever,” she announces on the elegantly understated “When It’s All Over,” whose spare digital pulse and ricocheting percussion gives the song a near trip-hop feel.

“Girl on Fire” begins on a slow simmer, gradually becoming more heated, when things truly combust on “Listen to Your Heart,” a boisterous, live-for-the-moment spree that seems meant to accompany the popping of Champagne corks.

Initially, on the first handful of tracks, Keys sings in a breathy purr suggestive of Sade, but by “Tears Always Win,” she’s testifying with gospellike fervor.

It’s been 12 years since Keys released her celebrated debut, “Songs in A Minor,” a nouveau blend of confessional songwriting, classically trained piano chops and old-school R&B smolder.

That album made Keys a superstar at age 20.

Speaking with her today, she comes across as a confident, assured presence.

But a decade ago, this wasn’t the case, and “Girl on Fire” is all about this gradual, incremental transformation.

“In the beginning it was totally awkward. I couldn’t have been more awkward, ever,” Keys says of finding her feet as a public figure. “It was just strange, because you live where you live, you grow up where you grow up, you know who you know. Then, you’re walking down the street, and all of a sudden, people are interested in who you are. It’s totally weird. When you’re able to be yourself, you can actually enjoy the whole process. But it definitely took awhile.”

The thing is, when you become a recognized name at such a young age, omnipresent on TV, on radio and in magazines, people think they have you figured out before you even have yourself figured out.

This is something that Keys wrangled with, the challenge of growing up when so many people want you stay the same: the girl at the piano singing of heartache in a way that felt raw and real.

“What happens is that people begin to judge you in a way, like they say, ‘This is who you are because it’s who I’ve seen on TV,’” Keys says. “I think it’s just about trying to be connected to who you are and not who people want you to be. That’s been an interesting lesson, something to focus on for me, like, really finding what my opinion is, what I believe in. That’s also part of what this record represents, really finding that space.”

This space equates to a distinct niche for Keys.

She’s a pop star, to be sure, but has little in common with fellow female chart toppers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, with whom she dominates the mainstream airwaves.

Every member of that trio is different from one another, musically speaking, but what unites them is a carefully cultivated image, a meticulously crafted aura about themselves.

When they’re onstage, it’s almost like they’re getting in touch with an alter ego.

Keys, though, has always come across as more instinctual, less studied.

And when she’s performing, it seldom feels like a performance.

“I’ve always been able to do my truth through music and been able to speak honestly and really be myself,” Keys says. “I’ve never had to put on an act.”

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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