Rocking an untamed afro and bare face on her latest album cover, Alicia Keys appears more true to herself than ever. From bouncy, energetic melodies to stripped down acoustic ballads, the 16-track record takes aim at issues plaguing the nation such as race, homosexuality and environmentalism through Keys’ eyes.
Growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, New York, Keys draws much inspiration from her roots in her albums. After leaving Columbia University to pursue a singing career, Keys broke into the music scene in 2001 with her album, Songs in A Minor, which sold 12 million copies worldwide and won Keys five Grammys.
Fifteen years later, Keys has discovered a new sound — one that shows her growth as both a musician and person as she explores socially conscious lyrics and an old school R&B sound. Fans have been long awaiting the new album following Keys’ intermittent song releases since her previous project, Girl on Fire, and the debut of Here’s hypnotic first single, “In Common,” in May.
Throughout the album, Keys combines her trademark piano accompaniment with new and improved arrangements heavily centered on acoustic guitars and percussion. In the album’s fifth track, “Kill Your Mama,” Keys’ lone voice is unadorned, accompanied only by a sonorous, resounding guitar. “Where Do We Begin Now” masterfully incorporates soft, cascading piano tones with a pounding beat to illustrate the song’s female narrator’s inner turmoil in revealing her relationship with another woman and exploring homosexuality. Stepping away from her comfort zone, Keys proves that risks, when done correctly, are well worth the reward.
Keys continues with prominent, clapping percussion and guitar arrangements in “Blended Family (What You Do For Love),” the only track to feature another artist: A$AP Rocky. Keys’ gentle and melodic voice opens up over a booming drum, twinkling piano and nylon-stringed guitar to deliver a heartfelt message on the beauty and struggles of creating a family with her husband, Swizz Beats, and his son from a previous marriage. A$AP Rocky reminisces about his own family as he softly sings and raps in his verse about his four stepmothers and the relatives that supported him.
But Keys proves there’s more to her musical evolution than changes in arrangements in tracks like “Girl Can’t Be Herself.” After appearing at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards bare faced and penning an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter on embracing natural beauty, Keys references her controversial decision to forgo makeup. “Who says I must conceal what I’m made of?/ Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem,” she croons, exuding confidence while speaking out against rigid beauty standards.
The album’s closing track, “Holy War,” takes on an even deeper meaning, promoting compassion and love to overcome hate and differences between others. Keys explores the possibility of a world in which “sex is holy and war is obscene,” while the track slowly builds to a raspy wail. It’s powerful, soulful and lingers with the listener, making it the perfect ending song for a charged album.
But at times Keys fumbles. In “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” a track about a New York woman looking for fulfillment in material possessions, she fails to successfully move past surface-level narratives and clichés. The song comes off as an ode to her hometown yet lacks the grittiness and emotional connection that Keys effectively displays in other tracks throughout the album.
On Here, Keys offers the most honest, raw version of herself and her perception of the world around her through anthems of self-love and social commentary. Album after album, Keys has proven that her successful debut was more than just a fluke — it was the beginning of a successful career for a prolific artist who continues to evolve.