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Alicia Keys finds "freedom" from Motown sound

 Singer Alicia Keys poses for a portrait while promoting her new album
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
— image credit: Reuters

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.

NEW SOUND, GOOD RECEPTION

Reviews have been generally favorable according to website Metacritic.com, which compiles criticism and gives albums a score. "Element of Freedom" earned 71 points out of 100.

Keys has been among the hardest working people in showbiz since she broke onto the scene in 2001, and she and her growing cadre of musical collaborators have honed their craft.

While her evolving sound may not offer die-hard R&B fans as many goosebumps as the Motown classics, Keys is cranking out radio-ready tunes every time she hits the studio.

"There are very 'hooky' parts you can put in, that people can sing along with you which I find can be the biggest songs," she said.

Keys' first starring role behind a piano was in a Manhattan kindergarten, and while there is less of the instrument on her latest album, Keys said she is looking forward to an upcoming tour that will give her time to play and compose.

"When I was younger it was mandatory, I studied very diligently at the time and was playing three hours a day. Honestly, I still should be doing it that way. Time management becomes a little difficult," she said.

Keys also said she's working on ideas for a Broadway debut, although it's not clear whether she'll act, direct or write.

"I want to do the stories and music, create a piece, a play. I don't necessarily want to act in it. I may, I may not."

She's not ready to give away the plot either. "You have to wait and see."

(Reporting by Joshua Schneyer; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Bob Tourtellotte)

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