Alicia Keys

As I Am (J Records)

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.

 
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