It’s been too long since Alicia Keys released her 2016 album, HERE. Though not always as effective as it was ambitious, her heartfelt brand of R&B, paired with some of her most political songwriting to date, arrived at what felt like just the right time. And even if it didn’t stand out in a year filled with politically charged albums made by black American artists – her competition included Beyoncé, Solange, and Frank Ocean, to name just a few – it served as yet another reminder that few contemporary songwriters are as adept at crafting inspirational self-esteem anthems as Alicia Keys, from the rousing ‘Holy War’ to the upbeat ‘Work On It’.
Keys’ new album, ALICIA, doesn’t follow the same artistic path that the more exploratory, versatile side of HERE seemed to hint at, but it is once again both timely and often empowering. There’s a reason lead single ‘Underdog’, an uplifting track that’s anchored by Keys’ ability to sell everyday stories about perseverance, only grew in popularity since it was first unveiled in January. It’s no doubt one of the album’s highlights, too, but it’s far from the only song of its kind here – and it’s when ALICIA seems to be openly addressing the current cultural climate that it feels most pertinent, as in the buoyant ‘Authors of Forever’, where Keys assures the “lost and lonely people” that it’s going to be alright.
It might seem strange, then, that the album is framed as the singer’s most personal album, and yet it fits that description. Keys might not be exploring her identity as an artist or as an individual on ALICIA, but she sounds more confident just being herself than she did on maybe any other one of her albums; it’s certainly an improvement from her previous effort, which was emotionally raw but sometimes lacking in personality. When she sings “What if I wasn’t Alicia?/ Would it please ya?” on the opening track, she sounds not only in full control but also full of conviction, and that self-assurance radiates throughout the album. Not many can deliver the lines “Me, me, me, me, me, me, me/ It needs to be about me” over a Pharrell-type beat without sounding obnoxious in the least, and yet that’s exactly what she does on the playful collab with Tierra Whack, ‘Me x 7’.
Part of the reason ALICIA works is that, even when Keys offers straightforward anthems of hope, it feels like she does it first and foremost to fill her own heart with optimism. But it also works the other way round: on ‘Jill Scott’ – because if you manage to get Jill Scott on your track, you can’t not call it ‘Jill Scott’ – her own need to be loved turns into a universal feeling: “When you are righteously loving somebody/ And that somebody is righteously loving you too/ It’s a vibration/ That everybody everywhere/ Can’t help but receive,” she sings. Unfortunately, not all of the album’s love songs – and there are a tad bit too many – manage to stand out in the same way, which leads to some of its weakest spots: ‘Show Me Love’ is driven by that same desire but comes off as painfully generic, while the reggae-inflected ‘Wasted Energy’ lacks any sense of momentum.
There are some notable exceptions, however, namely on two of the record’s collaborative tracks: ‘3 Hour Drive’ with Sampha and ‘So Done’ with Khalid, both of which excel at capturing an utterly entrancing mood. The first draws from a certain kind of absence that’s accentuated by Sampha’s appearance on the track; partly because of his relative absence in the music scene during the past couple of years, but also because the chemistry between the two singers here is unmistakable. ‘So Done’, on the other hand, with its spare electric guitar and luminous vocals, evokes a kind of listless, late-night vibe that somehow manages to amplify the album’s overall message of inner strength, a moment of complete clarity that leads to a powerful assertion: “I’m living the way that I want.”
ALICIA is characterized by a certain looseness, and while this suits the album’s overarching themes, it also makes it feel tonally incoherent and unfocused at times, which has been an issue with some of Keys’ work in the past. If you were expecting the artist to tighten up her songwriting and continue to work outside of her comfort zone to deliver a true masterpiece, this isn’t it; it doesn’t help that, like its predecessor, it runs a bit too long at 54 minutes. But the artist’s authenticity is on full display here, perhaps more so than ever, and there’s a kind of magnetism to its most illuminating moments. Two of them are stacked one after the other and positioned at the very end of the tracklist: ‘Perfect Way to Die’ is a somber, heart-wrenching piano ballad tackling police brutality and systemic racism, while the closer, ‘Good Job’, is another stirring highlight that might as well be the most vital song Keys has ever penned. An anthem of gratitude that has taken on a profound resonance in recent months, it offers the kind of hope you can hold on to, but that can also hold us together. Good job, indeed.