Alicia Keys is all about making statements these days. She’s rocking minimal makeup, saying she wants to show the world her “real self.” She’s barring the use of phones at concerts, seeking unfragmented connections with fans. And don’t forget her show-stopping appearance at this summer’s MTV Video Music Awards, where she performed a spoken-word poem about violence and sexuality in a divided America. But if for some reason you missed all that, just look to the title of her sixth album, Here — a declaration that the R&B star is present, unfiltered, and ready to engage.
And these days, Keys has a lot on her mind. Her new songs tackle topics such as institutional racism, the environment, and unfair beauty standards, and she wastes no time getting into it all after a quick intro. On “The Gospel,” she paints a generation-spanning portrait of a family in New York, running through a cultural history of black America over a warm hip-hop soul beat. The next track, “Pawn It All,” is a lively variation on the “material things mean nothing without love” theme she’s been noodling on for a decade and a half, but it comes outfitted with this bold new mic drop: “So I gotta let it all go…’cause I give it up, I don’t give a f—.” The new Alicia Keys performs these songs with a fire in her voice and an almost rap-like cadence, spitting out the words like her head will explode if she doesn’t. The combination of her subject matter and her urgent delivery makes Here her most vital release in years — and a welcome addition to 2016’s rich canon of albums from Beyoncé, Solange, Frank Ocean, Common, and Dev Hynes that address black life in America.
But eventually, the passion cools, raised fists crumple into shrugs, and songs start to lose their focus. Keys spends a lot of time writing about others — a tough New York queen on “She Don’t Really Care_1Luv,” a nondescript queer person on “Where Do We Begin Now” — but those writing exercises feel surface-level, lacking the kind of depth or details that would make them effective vessels for storytelling or bigger ideas. When she wraps up songs with love-is-all-you-need platitudes, it can feel trite — or worse, like she’s writing ad copy for a Gap (RED) campaign. Sometimes the grander the concept, the less it seems she has to say. (One key exception: “Holy War,” a crackling acoustic number that was the basis for her VMAs poem and makes for one of the album’s most spine-chilling performances.)
It’s no surprise, then, that the album’s most memorable — and most effective — tunes are the ones that look inward. The personal touch grounds Keys’ broader meditations on love and healing, freedom and struggle. She’s riveting when she’s broadcasting her third-life crisis on “Illusion of Bliss” (“I don’t know which way to go…somebody listen before I need help”), struggling with her own self-image on “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” or addressing her stepchildren and marriage to producer Swizz Beats (who worked on several tracks here) on the A$AP Rocky-assisted “Blended Family (What You Do for Love).” Clearly, Keys was onto something when she started removing the walls and armor between herself and her audience: She makes the most powerful statements of all when she’s speaking for herself.
”Kill Your Mama”
A guitar-driven collaboration with Emeli Sandé about the state of the planet
”Blended Family (What You Do for Love)” feat. A$AP Rocky
A love letter to her step-children that touches on her time in the tabloids