The Element of Freedom is the fourth studio album by American R&B recording artistAlicia Keys, released December 11, 2009, on J Records. Recording sessions for the album took place during May to September 2009 at The Oven Studios in Long Island, New York. Production was handled by Keys, Jeff Bhasker, Swizz Beatz, Noah "40" Shebib,Toby Gad and Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. Departing from the classicist soul music of Keys' previous albums, The Element of Freedom has a mid-tempo, low-key sound and features mostly ballads.
The album debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 417,000 copies in its first week. It became Keys' first non-number one album in the United States and her first number one album in the United Kingdom. The Element of Freedom was certifiedplatinum by the Recording Industry Association of America within its first month of release and produced five singles that attained moderate chart success. Despite mixed criticism towards its low-key style and Keys' songwriting, the album received generally positive reviews from most music critics. It has sold approximately 1.5 million copies in the United States and four million copies worldwide. Keys supported album with a world tour, The Freedom Tour.
After recording her third studio album, As I Am, Keys began to "find the way to totally be myself and what that meant; figuring out what choices I wanted to make and not make in order to truly honor myself". She described The Element of Freedom as diverse, but noted that there is a "balance". She explained that "one side is strong and one side is vulnerable", which she pointed to as the theme of the album. The album has a "strong, edgy feel", but is also "intimate and vulnerable and delicate". While on BET's 106 & Park, she described the album: "The way that the songs progress [on the album] are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, You're definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you're going to be shocked, you're going to hear things that you probably didn't think that I would sound like. It's a journey." Keys revealed toThe Times that in the period she was recording the album, she listened to artists such as Genesis, Tears for Fears, Fleetwood Macand The Police.
In an interview with Billboard magazine, Keys stated that she "eliminated all of the boundaries and all the limitations, so that you can feel your freedom and express your freedom in every way you possibly can". The Element of Freedom was scheduled to be released on December 1, 2009, to correspond with World AIDS Day, but was pushed back to December 15 for additional recording.According to the senior vice president of urban marketing for J Records, Keys "had a couple of more things in the oven and she wants this to be right [...] So we gave her the additional time she needed." Keys pointed out that she felt the album was being rushed for no reason. In an interview with Scottish newspaper The Scotsman, she stated that it "seems 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".
Keys began working on the album in May 2009. During this time, Keys and her audio engineer bought several vintagekeyboards, describing the Moog as her "special best friend". Recording took place in The Oven Studios inLong Island, New York. Keys expressed that she "didn't know what to do" when she began working on the album, but knew to do it. After exhausting herself, she stated that she "finally found the key, and that is to allow yourself to be free". She explained that the album dealt with overcomingdepression. She went on to say, "I found more freedom. Before, I thought I could only show the strong side of me. Now there’s a mixture of strong and delicate. A new sound, a new emotion. That’s a lot of who I am right now" Recording for the album was completed between August and September 2009. Keys described that she "love[d] melody so much", but approached the album with a "free zone". The album includes production by Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, Jeff Bhasker, Noah "40" Shebib and Swizz Beatz.
MTV News reported that Keys and rapper Jay-Z recorded "Empire State of Mind Part 2", a second version of "Empire State of Mind", from Jay-Z's album, The Blueprint 3. The final product did not include Jay-Z. In mid-November 2009, Brothers revealed on Twitterthat Canadian recording artist Drake will be featured on the album. Drake described the studio session with Keys as "one of the best studio experiences of my life". He explained that "I came in there and instead of being like, 'Here's the beat, get to work,' she was just like, 'Play me your favorite songs and lets battle'... It's almost like the transition from [listening to] great music to making a song — like, no one even noticed it, because she started playing the keys and I just started writing the melodies." Keys stated that due to the album being pushed back, she was able to record "How It Feels to Fly", as well as to work with recording artists Drake and Beyoncé, which Keys described as "the most exciting collaborations of my career yet".
Music writers have noted Keys' transition from 1970s R&B and soul to 1980s and 1990s pop-oriented sound with the album. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times described most of the album's songs as "professionals ... slow, clean songs with semi-classical acoustic piano, soft-pop chord changes and simple, prominent hip-hop beats". The Washington Post's Allison Stewart wrote that the album "relies unusually heavily upon mid-tempo, carefully layered lovesick ballads". Keys received some comparisons to musicianPrince. Slant Magazine's Matthew Cole wrote that "some retro synth work lends a funky backdrop" to Keys' "breathy vamping, alternating disco-diva choruses with Prince-worthy verses". Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic pointed out the "always apparent" influence of Prince, as Keys "swapped the retro-soul instrumentation of her earliest music for electronics". He identified the album as "clean, small-scale collection of ballads and Prince-inspired pop".Allmusic's entry page for the album lists R&B as its primary genre, while noting neo soul, adult alternative, and pop rock as styles incorporated in the album. Several writers also noted that the album's tenth track, "Put It in a Love Song", distinguishes itself from the rest of the album, being described as having "dreamy, sun-dazed production" and is "quantitatively different energy".
Marketing and PromotionEdit
In September 2009, the day after the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Keys posted the audio to the album's lead single, "Doesn't Mean Anything", on her YouTube channel. The song was released on iTunes on September 22. In October, she performed the song live on the Regis and Kelly show. "Doesn't Mean Anything" peaked at number 60 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 14 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. On October 21, 2009, Keys held "The Element of Freedom Lecture & Performance Series" at New York University, free for students at the Tisch School of the Arts. Among the songs she performed included the new "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart". The song, produced by Keys and Jeff Bhasker, was released as the second single from the album. The music video premiered on November 16, 2009. Keys performed a medley of "Empire State of Mind", "Doesn't Mean Anything" and "No One" on the sixth season of The X Factor on November 29, 2009. On December 16, 2009, BET's 106 & Park hosted a two-hour special titled 106 & Keys, which consisted of a countdown of Keys' videos and a live performance.
On December 1, 2009, Keys performed a benefit concert at the Nokia Theater in New York, where all the proceeds went to the Keep a Child Alive program. The concert—held on World AIDS Day—was streamed live on the video sharing website YouTube. A week prior to its release, Keys streamed The Element of Freedom in its entirety on the peer-to-peer music streaming service, Spotify, as well as social networking website, Facebook, through an application. She became the first major recording artist in Facebook's history to do so. BillboardLive.com is working with Keys to show off its new technology that allows fans to watch free concerts broadcast in HD via iPhone or iPod Touch. The "Alicia Keys & Friends" concert took place on January 7, 2010, at the Apollo Theater inNew York. In addition to her performances, Keys introduced new artists who also performed during the event. Keys also performed on Saturday Night Live on January 9, followed by an AOL Music Sessions premiere on January 14. On Valentine's Day, Keys performed with recording artists Usher and Shakira at the 2010 NBA All-Star Game during halftime. At the show, Keys performed "No One" from her 2007 album As I Am. She also performed "Empire State of Mind" as well "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart". On March 3, 2010, Keys embarked on the North American portion of The Freedom Tour at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Illinois. The European leg of the tour will commence late April 2010. Keys will also perform at the Essence Music Festival taking place on July 2–4, 2010.According to Keys, the album may be re-released with additional material.
Keys released "Doesn't Mean Anything" as the lead single from the album on September 22, 2009. Critics gave the song good reviews, comparing it to previous singles "No One", "Superwoman" and "If I Ain't Got You". The single had mixed success, in Europe it did well reaching top five in Switzerland and top ten in the UK. It peaked at number fourteen on the USR&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart but only managed to reach number sixty on the Billboard Hot 100. On November 17, 2009 Keys released her second single, "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart". It received critical acclaim as the album's standout moment for its timeless synths and throwbacks to the 1980s. The single was more successful than the previous, reaching number two in Norway and five in Denmark as well as number twenty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and number two on the US R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It was later released in the UK as the album's third single, where it would go on to peak at number seven.
"Put It in a Love Song" featuring Beyoncé was also released as a single from the album. It did best in Australia where it peaked at number eighteen and was certified Gold. However it did only receive a limited release in the United States, a video was due to be released in March 2010 but was then delayed till Summer 2010 so that "Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready)" could be pushed forward as a single instead. Despite this, "Put It in a Love Song" did peak at number sixty on the US R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. Following the album's release, Key's version of "Empire State of Mind" charted due to digital sales. It was released as an international-only single and was in some markets the best charting single. It peaked at number four in the UK, six in the Netherlands and number eight in Ireland. It also peaked at number fifty-five on the BillboardHot 100.
Meanwhile in the United States, "Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready)" began to make its impact from April 13, 2010. It was the most successful single from the album in the US, having topped the US R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Chart for twelve consecutive weeks as well as reaching number twenty-one on the Billboard Hot 100. A remix featuring Drake was released on May 28, 2010. Following the birth of Key's first child on October 16, 2010, Keys revealed that "Wait 'Til You See My Smile" would be released as the next single in the UK on November 28, 2010. However this was since pushed back to December 12, 2010. The single features "Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready)" (Remix featuring Drake) as its b-side. To promote the single 12,000 film makers were invited over a period of six weeks to create a music video for the song. Keys will then select one of six short-listed videos to be released as the song's official music video for YouTube and music channels.
The Element of Freedom debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, selling 417,000 copies in its first week. It became Keys' first album to not debut at number one on that chart. In its second week, the album sold 280,000 copies. In its third week the album sold 80,000 copies. In its fourth week the album sold 62,000 copies. In its fifth on the US charts, the album sold 48,000 copies. The album has sold over one million copies in the United States and has been certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. As of August 4, 2010, it has sold 1,391,300 copies in the United States.
The album entered the UK Albums Chart at number seventeen on December 20, 2009 and climbed to number one in the UK Albums Chart on February 7, 2010 making it her first album to ever chart within the top five and top the chart. In the space of the first month it had spawned three top ten singles in the UK, and had remained at number one on the UK R&B Albums Chart for thirteen consecutive weeks. The album reached number one in Switzerland and has been certified gold after sales in excess of 15,000. It has since gone on to reach platinum in the country. In December 2009, the album was certified platinum in Canada for sales of 80,000. As of January 2, 2011, The Element of Freedom has sold approximately 1.5 million copies in the US, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The Element of Freedom received positive reviews from most music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, it received an average score of 67 based on 14 reviews. Andrew Burgess of MusicOMH gave the album 3½ out of 5 stars and viewed its production as "a perfect counterpoint to Keys' voice, and the sentiment she's trying to convey", while calling the album one of "the best pop albums of 2009". BBC Online's Daryl Easlea wrote "Keys' canny ability to fox and beguile make The Element of Freedom an unexpected pleasure", and described Keys' vocals as "raw with emotion", which he felt matched the album's drum programming.Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot called the album Keys' "most consistent album and also her most low-key", and found it less "forced or gimmicky" than her previous albums.Killian Fox of The Observer called it "a confident, well-crafted modern soul record" that was made without "doing anything groundbreaking". Los Angeles Times writer Randy Lewis wrote favorably of Keys' thematic approach, stating that she "digs deep into the multitude of implications of independence". Despite writing that Keys lyrically "remains wedded to cliché", Digital Spy's Nick Levine gave the album 4 out of 5 stars and wrote "thanks to thatvoice and her knack for a timeless-sounding melody, she can make even the hackneyed sound classic". Leah Greenblatt ofEntertainment Weekly commented that Keys has "established herself as an increasingly rare thing in pop music: the class act", noting that the "often-banal lyrics" were carried by her "quicksilver" voice. USA Today's Steve Jones called its songs "consistently strong and thematically cohesive" and perceived the album as "more nuanced and intimate" than Keys' previous work.
However, Simon Price of The Independent felt that the songs "drift by disappointingly, anodyne and indistinguishable", commenting that he "genuinely had to keep checking the LCD display to see if we were still on the same track". Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone found that its production "compresses her voice, making it sound a lot less like her, especially on the ballads". Vibe's Clover Hope noted "rote songwriting" from Keys and wrote that the album lacks her "gritty edge that once was love at first sight". Mikael Wood of Spincommented that "Keys seems uninterested in breaking new ground, snooze-controlling her way through a series of familiar piano-soul platitudes". Slant Magazine's Matthew Cole commented that "As smart and savvy a songwriter as Keys should be able to do better than this". Allison Stewart of The Washington Post noted lyrical "banalities" in her songwriting and called it "another safe, uninspiring album" from Keys. Tyler Lewis of PopMatters gave it a 3/10 rating and perceived "uninspiring, trendy electronica production, strident lead vocal performances, and banal lyricism". Chicago Sun-Times writer Jim DeRogatis viewed its lyrics as "empty cliches" and found its sound pretentious. In his consumer guide for MSN Music, critic Robert Christgau gave the album a B rating and named it "dud of the month", indicating "a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought". Christgau interpreted Keys' attempt at "melismatic pain" to be "formal ploy merely, a diva-by-default's privilege" and stated "It's far from a shock but definitely a disappointment to watch Ms. Trained Pianist survey her branding options and choose the bland card over the brains card".
No.TitleWriter(s)Length1."Element of Freedom" (Intro) 0:122."Love Is Blind" Alicia Keys, Jeff Bhasker3:493."Doesn't Mean Anything" Keys, Kerry Brothers, Jr.4:324."Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart" Bhasker, Keys, Patrick "Plain Pat" Reynolds4:095."Wait Til You See My Smile" Keys, Bhasker, Kasseem Dean4:016."That's How Strong My Love Is" Keys4:047."Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready)" Keys, Aubrey Graham, Brothers, Noah Shebib4:098."Love Is My Disease" Keys, Brothers, Toby Gad, Meleni Smith4:019."Like the Sea" Keys, Bhasker4:1310."Put It in a Love Song" (featuring Beyoncé)Keys, Dean3:1511."This Bed" Keys, Brothers, Steve Mostyn3:4512."Distance and Time" Keys, Brothers, Mostyn4:2713."How It Feels to Fly" Keys, Brothers4:4214."Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down" Keys, Al Shuckburgh, Shawn Carter, Jane't "Jnay" Sewell-Ulepic, Angela Hunte, Bert Keyes, Sylvia Robinson3:36