Alicia Keys Embraces Socially Consciousness On ‘Here’
Alicia Keys aims for big, socially conscious ideas on her sixth studio album ‘Here.’ Those ideas aren’t always executed seamlessly, however.
Alicia Keys tends to take her time when it comes to releasing new albums. Here, her sixth album, arrives four years after her last (Girl on Fire). Here is different from previous Keys albums. Throughout its course, she aims at bigger ideas, specifically socially. Sometimes it works well, while other times, Keys feels like she falls just short or the song hasn’t been fully developed.
“The Beginning (Interlude)” sets the tone for Here, channeling a socially conscious, poetic vibe. This sets the tone for the outstanding “The Gospel,” a thoughtful number blending facets of R&B, hip-hop, and singer/songwriter. Produced by Keys, hubby Swizz Beatz, and Mark Batson, the results are superb. Like the socially conscious intro preceding it, Keys aims for the same direction, painting a picture of families from the ghetto:
“So we all got children, products of the ghetto / Momma cooked the soup, daddy di the yelling / Uncle was a drunk, cousin was a felon / When he got pitched, he told them he wasn’t tellin’.”
“Pawn It All” follows up with a tough, hard-hitting beat and bluesy, gospel-infused piano. The coarse nature that Keys’ vocals have taken on is perfectly suited for this song. Notably, Keys drops the f-bomb – the first of several that appear throughout Here. All in all, this is a respectable song, but like “The Gospel,” it is a different look for Keys. Arguably, it’s missing a little extra something-something. Another interlude, “Elaine Brown (Interlude)” follows.
While “Pawn It All” is somewhat of change of course for Keys, “Kill Your Mama” is a stark contrast. A raw record, it is accompanied by guitar and lacks the finesse of past records. Clearly this was the intent, but it feels somewhat unfinished. The songwriting aptitude is undeniable – a collaboration between Keys and Emeli Sandé.
“She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”
Standout “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” returns to the more familiar urban contemporary sound associated with Keys. Once more produced by Swizz Beatz, another hard beat anchors. “She Don’t Really Care” features one of the catchiest refrains of the entire album, filled with grit and attitude.
“She grew up in Brooklyn / she grew up in Harlem / She grew up in Bronx / She know she was a queen / she lived in Queens / oh yeah, oh yeah / but she don’t really care / she throw them diamonds in the air…”
“…1 Luv” contrasts the first part, with a slightly more enigmatic sound. Still, it’s firmly planted in urban roots, featuring clear vocals from Keys. Yet another interlude (“Elevate”) follows.
“Illusion of Bliss” opens heavily with an intro where the protagonist states, “I’m a 29-year old addict.” Thudding drums and bluesy organ enter, setting the dramatic, throwback soul tilt of the song. The song itself is unique, but also a lot to take in. Those willing to stretch their ears will fall in love with it. Those who enjoy more traditional performances will have a more difficult time getting into it. Nonetheless, Keys does interesting things with her voice which we’ve never heard before.
“Blended Family (What You Do for Love)”
Highlight “Blended Family (What You Do for Love),” featuring A$AP Rocky, is well produced, seamlessly blending pop and R&B. The guitars and light touches of piano are successful. The beat is dusty and soulful in an old-school hip-hop idiom. Songwriting is where the song’s bread is buttered as Keys gets personal about her own family.
“I know it started with a little drama / I hate you had to read it in the paper/ but everything’s alright with me and ya Mama / baby everybody here you know adores ya.”
She unifies on the hook:
“That’s what you do, what you do, what you do / what you do for love / ‘cause there’s ain’t nothing, there ain’t nothing / their ain’t nothing I won’t do for us / It may not be easy / this blend family, but baby / that’s what you do, what you do, what you do / what you do for love.”
Pharrell Williams lends his production prowess on “Work On It,” a slow, 6/8 throwback ballad. Vocally, Keys sounds smooth during the verses and soulful on the refrain. Background vocals and ad-libs amplify the overall record. After an interlude about insecurity (“Cocoa Butter (Cross & Pic Interlude)”), “Girl Can’t Be Herself” follows, mixing soul and tropical sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, another interlude follows (“You Glow (Interlude)”).
“More Than We Know”
“More Than We Know” is firmly planted in Keys’ wheelhouse. It doesn’t supplant the biggest hits of her career by any means, but offers a glimpse back. Something about this record reminisces back to Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). Penultimate record “Where Do We Begin Now” embraces a motto of love is love, evidenced from opening line, “What they gon’ do ‘cause we the same sex?” R&B infused pop closer “Holy War” extends upon the sentiment, delivering one of Keys’ most socially relevant singles of her career. It should be noted that this ISN’T the best song of her career… or the album.
All in all, much of Here comes from a good place for Alicia Keys. On paper, she aims to deliver big, socially relevant messages. The problem is, Here doesn’t completely gel, even with ambitious intent. In that regard, this project lacks the polish and memorability of her previous work. It’s not bad in the least, but imperfect.
Gems: “The Gospel,” “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” “Blended Family (What You Do for Love),” “More Than We Know” & “Holy War”
Alicia Keys • HERE • RCA • Release: 11.4.16
Photo Credit: RCA