Here (released November 4, 2016)
After being in the public eye for 15-something years, I think we’re just now seeing the real Alicia Keys.
Back when she launched her #NoMakeup campaign a year or so ago, some longtime fans were thrown off – the untamed hair, eccentric outfits, rambling speeches – it’s like she became Freddie from A Different World.
But I don’t think this is a “new” Alicia. By bearing her face she symbolically bared her soul. And on Here, Alicia’s sixth album, she’s got something to stay.
Four days before the U.S. presidential election, and firmly in the middle of one of the most tumultuous racial climates in decades, Here aims to deliver the unfiltered truth about race and womanhood in America. And when it works, it really works – Here features some of the strongest songwriting of Alicia’s career.
Well, most of the time, anyway. But we’ll touch on that later.
Alicia’s love affair with hip-hop has long been documented, and it really shines on the first half of the album. The rampaging keys of “The Gospel” fuel bleak concepts that sound more fit for a backpacker in a cypher than an R&B singer: “Now we doing life like Eddie Murphy and Martin, on the chain gang I was singing it to the coffin.” If you’re looking for pristine vocals, this ain’t the album for you. The rawness of tracks like “Illusion of Bliss” (“Sick of being high, sick of being low/Sick of all the lies putting on the show”) are exemplified by both lyrics and delivery. These songs are about passion, not perfection.
A Keys addresses her no-makeup campaign on “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” when she wonders aloud, “Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self esteem.” The message of self-love is taken to new extremes on “Kill Your Mama.” The track is extremely bare bones – just Alicia’s voice and guitar licks – where she describes Mother’s Earth’s pain: “All that you have given them we only disrespect it/rate that we’re going, premature armageddon.”
Alicia really finds her groove on “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” which serves as a more subtle version of Nas’ classic “Black Girl Lost.” And speaking of Esco, Keys pays tribute to him on the song’s outro. There’s even a little family time here too, with “Blended Family (What You Do For Love)” serving as a love letter to her stepchild. I wasn’t a big fan of the track when it was first released but its uplifting message brings a much needed change of pace to the album’s heavy themes.
Clearly there’s a lot to digest on Here – the above songs only make up about half the album. The second half of the album, however, is where the weaknesses begin to show. “Holy War” and “Where Do We Begin Now” are cookie-cutter pop tracks that Alicia can sing in her sleep. The vocal theatrics on “Work On It” can’t save it from mediocrity. Even the background singers sound mad bored on “More Than We Know.” Geez, y’all wake up!
Here is an ambitious project with good intentions but struggles to find itself about halfway through. I just wish we got less of the renowned pop star and more of the uncovered – and unfiltered – A Keys.
Best tracks: “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” “Kill Your Mama,” “Blended Family (What You Do For Love)”
3.5 stars out of 5