The year was 2001. The season was summer. There was a song by this 20-year-old piano player named Alicia Cook, who came from Hell’s Kitchen. It was called “Fallin’”. Moving along at a basic 6/8 time signature, the track highlighted feathery piano placed atop a drum machine before eventually ….
One of the most the remarkable things about Alicia Keys is her inherent ability to inject an infinite amount of emotion into every note she sings. On the Hell’s Kitchen survivor’s sixth studio album, HERE, the distinguished songstress seems to purge her soul, which is really nothing too out of the ordinary. Since emerging with her 2001 Grammy Award-winning debut, songs in A minor, she’s built her career around piano-laden ballads and intimate content.
In a year of superb, politically charged albums by black American artists, Alicia Keys’s sixth record is a standout, on which her signature piano takes second place to her urgent voice. Kill Your Mama is a Marvin Gaye-ish plea for ecological awareness, Illusion of Bliss an organ-fugged, bluesy portrait of addiction, while The Gospel celebrates the history of black culture with a punchy, half-rapped vocal. Best of all are Holy War, which sorrows over the world’s skewed priorities as it showcases the gritty, gut-punch power of Keys’s voice at its best over acoustic guitar and cavernous beats, and Blended Family (What You Do for Love), a rare, sweet testament to the new normal of remarriage, typical of the album’s warmth, wisdom and confident class.
From the cover photo, which has an afroed Alicia Keys giving the camera an equivocal gaze, to the contents, which throw her weight behind Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements, her first album since 2012 is a sobering piece of work. Its sprawling 18 tracks pit a raw-voiced Keys and her piano against a catalogue of intolerance and -isms, with New York, her lifelong home, as the fractious, polyrhythmic setting. Nina Simone and Black Panthers leader Elaine Brown, both namechecked in songs, are among her totemic figures, but much of the music transcends race: the rippling Where Do We Begin Now prettily toasts same-sex relationships; Blended Family employs hip-hop crackle to address her husband Swizz Beats’s children from former relationships; Girl Can’t Be Herself is a Tropicália-laced takedown of beauty standards.
For all of her talent and artistic ability, Alicia Keys has yet to put together a solid full-length record from start to finish. Despite taking a four-year break, her sixth album, Here, is no exception.These days, Keys is a fixture in the public eye, whether it's being featured on TV singing contest show "The Voice" or making a guest spot on soapy TV drama "Empire." And she has nothing really to prove — her status as a contemporary R&B/pop artist is cemented, and her songwriting and musical abilities continue to evolve. But assuming the intent of this 16-track project was to be a take on The Miseducation of Lauren Hill — complete with "conscious" interludes — Here isn't quite there.
Pictured sans makeup and donning a voluminous, untamed afro on Here's stark black-and-white cover, Alicia Keys seems more awake and relaxed than ever on her first album in four years. “Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem,” she wonders on “Girl Can't Be Herself,” reflective of her controversial effort to inspire a makeup-free movement earlier this year. Even more naked, however, are Keys's performances throughout Here.
At this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, Alicia Keys made headlines for walking the red carpet without makeup. For those who had been paying attention, this wasn’t anything new. As a musician who has been rooting herself deeper in meditation practice, a parent embracing motherhood, and a celebrity increasing her philanthropy, Keys stopped dolling up months prior.
Alicia Keys is a creature of habit when it comes to her music. With “Piano and I,” the first track on her hugely successful debut album Songs in A Minor, she started the tradition of opening her albums with a clearly marked intro. Although the format varied—wordless classical compositions, piano-backed spoken-word pieces, a short poem—these intros generally served two purposes: reminding us of her piano chops and elucidating her state of mind during the recording process.
Alicia Keys' eighth album downplays her classical training in favor of a grittier R&B edge. She roughs up the piano she once played prettily, endows her vocal exertions with more church than ever, and leans into a solid old-school hip-hop backbone fortified in large part by her husband Swizz Beatz. Her socially consciousness lyrics are as tough as her sound, from the sex-positive pacifism of "Holy War" to the inner city blues of "The Gospel," where her raw holler skirts the edge of despair.
Between the release dates of her fifth and sixth albums, Alicia Keys was as visible as ever, acting on Empire, coaching on The Voice, performing on Saturday Night Live and at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. At some point, she stopped wearing makeup, fed up with the standard of perfection to which women are held. That anti-processing mentality and heightened social consciousness carried into the making of Here.
Keys’ lyrics are generally more interesting than in the past, but ‘Here’ also soars because the music feels looser and more youthful than her usual radio-devouring ballads. ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’ rides a Latin-flecked R&B bounce, ‘The Gospel’ and ‘Pawn It All’ wed soulful melodies to old-school hip-hop beats, and ‘Work On It’ is a classic-sounding soul ballad that wrong-foots you with a surprisingly restrained chorus. Though it’s unfairly relegated to the deluxe edition, Keys’ percolating summer single ‘In Common’ remains the freshest, coolest track she’s ever recorded.