Alicia (released September 18, 2020)
We’ve had a running joke in Soul in Stereo studios for about a year now:
Which will actually come out first – Alicia Keys’ album or Marvel’s Black Widow movie?
Alicia Keys, a winner is you. See you in 2021, Natasha. Maybe.
Thanks to the cavalcade of suck that is 2020, the whole world has been put on CP time, and Alicia, Keys’ seventh studio album, is no exception. We heard the album’s first single 12 months ago, with SIX MORE tracks releasing over the course of the calendar year.
Unfortunately, many of those tracks didn’t inspire a lot of excitement for the album.
I’ve spoken recently about how, sadly, 5-star album reviews are few and far between in the modern era. However, I have no problem bestowing Alicia’s sophomore set with the full monty; in fact, her first four albums are all winners, making her the premier female R&B artist of the 2000s. In recent years, though, Alicia has struggled to find her sound, seemingly throwing everything against the wall in a failed attempt to make something – ANYTHING – stick. You could see that scattershot approach in the rollout of her singles. A pop song here, and R&B joint there – the project seemed to lack a defining sound to join them all together.
On Twitter, Keys called the album “genreless,” and that certainly shows. However, “genreless” doesn’t necessarily mean “directionless” – Alicia is an album with something to say. And don’t worry, if some of those iffy singles had you skeptical, there are several album cuts that come through.
“‘You can’t understand me’ is an understatement/I love you more because I know you hate me,” Alicia declares on the opener “Truth Without Love,” a clear message to critics. “Truth without love,” she says, “Is just a lie.” As its name suggests, the Alicia album ain’t afraid to get personal.
As mentioned earlier, the album runs the gamut sonically, with mixed results. “Authors of Forever” feels like it was plucked from the early 80s, with its pulsating, feel-good vibes. “Love Looks Better” feels like a poppy number from her As I Am days while “Gramercy Park” is a bit more folksy. Alicia rides the riddims on “Wasted Energy,” but the energy is way too subdued for the track. More on that later.
She finds a much better fit with Miguel on “Show Me Love,” a modern twist on the R&B formula she rode to multiplatinum success in the early 00s. Alicia also shows incredible chemistry with Snoh Aalegra on the patented piano ballad “You Save Me.” Snoh has been on an incredible hot streak, and that continues here. It also helps that Alicia is always at her best behind the piano.
The album’s greatest strength is its concepts. Blending her own personal journey with the socially-tattered fabric of 2020, Alicia crafts some of the more poignant messages in recent memory. “Me X 7” is a declaration of self-worth (Tierra Whack’s verse is the standout here) with the theme continuing with Khalid on “So Done”: “I’m done fighting myself … I’m living the way I want.”
“Perfect Way to Die” is a sobering take on police brutality, focusing on the families left behind and lost potential. And the album closer, “Good Job,” is a heartfelt shoutout to everyday people: “The mothers, the fathers, the teachers that reach us/Strangers to friends that show up in the end.”
Alicia is an album that has its heart in the right place, that’s why its missteps are so frustrating. Like seemingly everyone else in the music industry these days, A Keys catches a bad case of the VIBEZ Virus on this LP, meaning that there is way too much focus on moody atmosphere.
“Time Machine” is a perfectly fine song that is just too ambient for its own good. Sounds like something they’d play in your dentist office while you’re thumbing through a 9-month-old US Weekly magazine. “Wasted Energy” and “3 Hour Drive” are just as snoozy.
And yes, “Underdog,” written by Ed Sheeran, has seen a fair share of success, but it feels too much like an Ed Sheeran song, from production to cadence. It’s Alicia in Sheeran cosplay instead of a track that she’s made her own.
Like most of Alicia’s 2010-era releases, I expect Alicia to be a very divisive record. It likely won’t sit well with most R&B stalwarts – she makes little attempt to stick to her roots on this one. But this album does get props for showcasing a consistent sound and strong message. Alicia has a lot to say, its just doesn’t always sound that excited to say it.
Best tracks: “Show Me Love,” “You Save Me,” “Authors of Forever”
3.5 stars out of 5