Right when you were ready to forget about Alicia Keys, she comes back with the rawest -- and best -- album of her career.
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, a chorus of voices took hold of the hook. It wasn’t supposed to really break ground -- just another voice in a then-sea of neo-soul artists who did all they could to leap from niche obscurity to mainstream populism.
But, in some ways, it did break ground. Not only on a career, but also a genre of music, R&B, that was desperate to get back into radio prominence. Cook eventually changed her last name to Keys, elbowed her way onto Top 40 radio fully equipped with an infectious street swagger, and then that voice did the rest.
“I keep on fallin’. Innnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn and outta love. With you.”
It was the lead single to a debut, Songs in A Minor, that was uniquely, if not improbably, accessible. A song like “How Come You Don’t Call Me” was old school enough to grab the soul snobs by their pretensions (thank you, Prince) and coerce them into being genuine fans. “Why Do I Feel So Sad” pulled on all the right heart strings. “Rock Wit U” was fun enough to announce Keys’s versatility. “A Woman’s Worth” proved she had the formula to advance her lifespan beyond mere one-hit-wonder-dom. In short, a star was born.
And going into 2016, Ms. Keys had a decision to make about her sixth studio album, Here: Continue to head down a road to the obscurity that is Adult Contemporary-ville, which, make no mistake, was where she was heading with 2012’s milquetoast Girl on Fire, and especially with 2009’s way too schmaltzy The Element of Freedom. Her other option was to switch it up. Get back the edge that made Songs in A Minor so memorable. Find the passion she seemingly lost through the years. Return to being essential.
Her choice? Well, Here is the best Alicia Keys album to date. And, it is, without question, the most fully exhilarating musical experience of her career. It’s a return to the form she lost years ago as her success kept growing and her maturity kept developing. Age can bring perspective and stability, both of which have the ability to compromise an artist’s hunger. And to say that the singer’s last few outings lacked vigor would be an understatement; they barely reached a five on the I Give a Shit Meter.
The 20-year-old Alicia Cook initially shot to superstar status because of her edge. Songs in A Minor found the sweet spot between Jill Scott street smarts and Erykah Badu introspection, figured out how to make it accessible to the mainstream, threw a very real and very exciting attitude on top of it, and subsequently printed money for the next few years. Since then, however, the singer has pulled that rawness back significantly. Gone was the aggression of A Minor; in was the compassion of The Diary.
The 35-year-old Alicia Keys, though? She doesn’t give a fuck. And we know this because she literally says as much on “Pawn It All”, easily one of Here’s most memorable tracks. Pushed forward with a hip-hop backbeat, it highlights why this is one of the year’s most thrilling pop-R&B releases: Girl still has some shit to deal with. Be it the song’s chorus, where she pleads for the ability to start her life over again, or the “Get on up” that bridges the space between verses, her approach sets the tone for precisely how real this set consistently feels.
That realness reaches its climax, arguably, with the five-plus minute epic slow jam “Illusion of Bliss”. Anchored by a soulful church organ, it trots along at a pace akin to some deliciously sluggish blues, Keys stabbing the structure with longing moans and palpable bellows. At one point, she lists the things she’s sick of and the vehemence of the pain in her voice is a first for the singer’s career. It ultimately culminates with an orgasmic scream that is so raw and so flat that you can’t help but smile at the heart she pours into each second of the performance.
Unsurprisingly, heart is a marquee element to this collection. “Holy War”, one of the handful of tracks that puts an acoustic guitar front and center, is filled with compassion, Keys repeating “We can hate each other and fear each other” in a manner that sounds more hopeful than it does wishful. As it opens up and the singer asserts, “Maybe we should love somebody,” she sounds like a more weathered Pink -- and that says something. “Blended Family” is another turn toward Acoustic Town, though where you might think the production could slip too far into VH1 territory, Keys perseveres by offering up the tiniest bit of grit that ultimately sets her apart.
And about that grit… it’s everywhere. If you count the album’s interlude, there are at least five standalone spoken-word tracks that pop up, giving the entire thing a mixtape feel. You can’t really call them skits because, in essence, they are little more than the audio of people sitting around and talking to one another, but you get the feeling that Keys wanted her audience to rest assured that her return to the street was in full effect (as if the guest spot from ASAP Rocky on “Blended Family” and the presence of Nas on both “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” and one of those aforementioned interludes wasn’t already enough). And in full effect, it is.
Curiously, the two tracks that launched this rebirth with performances on Saturday Night Live in May don’t appear here, save for the deluxe addition, and all told, that’s a shame. While "Hallelujah" kicks with its handclaps and repentance, “In Common” is one of the best songs of Keys’s career. Not only is it dripping wet, but it also allows the singer to wear a world music hat that she’s historically donned fairly well (the Beyonce collab “Put It in a Love Song” might go down as the Lost Great Alicia Keys Single before it’s all said and done).
But even that oversight is forgiven with something like the aggression of “The Gospel”, which sees the New York native attack husband Swizz Beats’s production with a brand of hip-hop verses that she’s never offered before. “Work on It” is equally as passionate, Keys changing up the soul-pop-ballad formula with minimal production and an ingenious jingle of “oh-oh-oh’s" that’s just as much a nod to the music’s past as it is its future. It’s exciting and inspiring and fun and interesting and imperative for an artist so desperate to re-find herself.
And finding herself appears to be the focal point of everything Here embodies. In so many ways, it comes out of nowhere, a shot of adrenaline to a career that would have been fine enough staying in cruise control for the duration of the singer’s life. Instead, Alicia Keys decided to make something so raw, so honest, so palpable, that it should be all but impossible for soul music lovers to ignore this release.
“Had your chance for redemption, but you fucking blew it,” she tersely asserts on the jaunty “Kill Your Mama”. It’s probably the least autobiographical statement on the entire record. Because it’s 2016, and 15 years removed from first breaking ground on a career as surprising as it’s been successful, Ms. Keys has officially -- and finally -- rediscovered her inner Minor.