A new Alicia Keys album? My excitement is minimal, since her live performances of late and two latest releases (Girl On Fire and The Element Of Freedom) are a far cry from her debut trio As I Am, The Diary of Alicia Keys, and Songs In A Minor. The initial launch of this album still feels off due to incomplete-sounding “In Common“. However, I’m happy to give her another chance. This is the woman responsible for “Fallin’“, “You Don’t Know My Name“, “No One” and “If I Ain’t Got You“. Enter, Alicia Keys’ HERE.
I recently saw Alicia Keys perform the entire HERE album top to bottom for a PBS taping at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. Mid-show I have a revelation and text a friend that it seems like Alicia “defeated Ursula and got her voice back”. She sounds vocally magnificent, and HERE is a body of work representing true artistic growth for Alicia Keys.
Listening to this album is magical. It’s a dense body of work, clocking in at 18 tracks. Interludes seamlessly tie together each song and thought, most noteworthy in the accompanying short film “The Gospel”. Topically, it’s a far cry from the personal songs of love and heartbreak populating her early work. However, she showcases incredible artistic growth in her ability to be just as soulful, raw, and personal about the politically driven topics she focuses on throughout the album.
HERE opens with a one-two punch: “Change gon come, spirit of Sam Cooke” she intensely sing-raps over a sample of the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Shaolin Brew” on “The Gospel”. She spits with ferocious intensity and sounds like she could hold her own on the original alongside the Wu. “Pawn It All” follows, and is an infectious dedication to making it and push through any and all challenges. Alicia catches the spirit and soulfully pushes into her upper register, while church-meets-James Brown chants of “get on up!” repeat and invigorate.
“Illusion of Bliss” is not only the midpoint of this album, but also the highlight of HERE. In some respects, it recalls Songs In A Minor’s “A Woman’s Worth”. However, “Illusion” fills in with more earthy, torch and throwback-esque vibes, rather than the contemporary, neo-soul feel of “Woman’s”. Alicia’s delivery is soulful, gritty, and slow burning on the verses. On the hook, she’s gripping, itching, and passionate as she sing-raps about addiction. “And so it persists, like a bottomless kiss, an illusion of bliss”, she wails relentlessly and passionately. The 5-minute tale climaxes, while Alicia reaches into her higher register and growls in her lower range. Suddenly, sirens emanate while the song transforms into a heavenly plea of “I don’t want to be a fallen angel”.
One particularly personal moment on HERE comes with the A$AP Rocky-assisted “Blended Family”, since she speaks directly to her stepson on their family life (which you can catch up on here). With a sample of Edie Brickell’s “What I Am” (a 90’s one-hit wonder I know best for Lauryn Hill’s use on an Aretha Franklin song) providing the foundation, the song is a catchy, guitar driven mid-tempo that holds nothing back. “Hey I might not really be your mother/ That don’t mean that I don’t really love ya”, she sings, honestly and lovingly.
HERE closes with the especially relevant “Holy War”. She challenges and condemns the notions of sex being obscene, while war is commonplace, acceptable, and even holy. “Maybe we should love somebody, instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.” she sings. We as a country see stronger political divides today than ever before, hence our need for more unifying voices like that of Alicia Keys in these times of uncertainty and confusion.
Stream Alicia Keys’ HERE: