Review: Alicia Keys Navigates Personal & Social Issues Earnestly On ‘Here’
Ever since Alicia Keys burst onto the music scene 15 years ago, she’s had important things to say with the inspired music to back them up. Although her last two albums have felt a bit predictable and safe, her latest record brings back some of her early spark. Her sixth album, Here is Alicia’s biggest statement in years. She looks inward less than before, instead focusing her attention on what’s going on socially. Her music is less pretty and classical, now leaning more to edgy hip hop grit and old-school soul.
Here contains 16 songs, coming in at 46 minutes. Even so, there are times where it feels a bit rushed. Five interludes take up the tracklist, each about one minute long. These brief interruptions are meant to add depth and meaning to the album, but they also take away the momentum and focus that Here would otherwise have. Nevertheless, the interludes do offer interesting insight.
The first proper song on the album is “The Gospel,” an intense track finding Alicia spitting out words more aggressively than ever before. She describes a hard upbringing, a family with its drunks and crooks, heroine and rats. But in spite of it all, “If you ain’t in a battle, how you gon’ win the fight?,” she asks. It’s a strong track and the most direct we’ve heard from Alicia yet.
“Pawn It All” pushes a low, bluesy, soulful sound to back up Alicia’s theme of love mattering more than material things. But while 2003’s “If I Ain’t Got You” was a gentle ballad, “Pawn It All” puts the same idea to a grittier soundtrack. “Kill Your Mama” is the most surprising song yet. Accompanied by a soulful folk guitar strum, Alicia sings earnestly about social issues. She asks, “If we are in love with hell, why the hell would heaven visit?”
In “She Don’t Really Care_1Luv,” Alicia uses minimalist instrumentation as she characterizes queens from Harlem and Cairo who don’t care about the diamonds they lack. The song soon moves on to its “one love” refrain before fading out as the “Elevate” interlude takes over. “Illusion Of Bliss” starts with Alicia speaking while on the verge of tears, describing herself as a 29 year old addict as she sets the scenes for the song. It’s a moving track that tackles a new subject beautifully.
The most obviously personal track on Here is “Blended Family (What You Do For Love).” In 2010, Alicia married producer Swizz Beatz. The couple has since had two kids together in addition to his 3 children from his previous marriage. On “Blended Family,” Alicia dedicates her attention to her step-children, assuring them that she loves them as much as their biological mother. It’s a sweet song that confirms that love and community are stronger than hate and division.
“Work On It” also describes Alicia and Swizz’s relationship and how they were criticized for moving too fast. Meanwhile, “Girl Can’t Be Herself” is Alicia’s own declaration that she doesn’t need to worry what others think of her. She doesn’t need to wear heels or makeup to feel comfortable in her skin. She’s put her sentiments into motion with her recent decision to go makeup-free in real life.
“More Than We Know” is a lovely, uplifting song that reminds us nothing is impossible. “Where Do We Begin” is equally magical sonically, with cascading piano to accompany its lyrical picture of a same-sex couple.
The album ends with a strong track that looks at the pervasive issues of sex and war. In “Holy War,” Alicia proclaims that we’ve got it twisted. We worship war and abhor sex, but shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t love trump hate? We’re “divided by difference, sexuality, and skin,” but “maybe we should love somebody” instead. It’s perhaps her strongest social song so far.
Here is a grand album with a strong message, tough instrumentation, and earnest lyrics. It’s Alicia’s best album in nearly a decade, and one that matters on both the personal and social level.
Highlights on Here include “The Gospel,” “Kill Your Mama,” “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” “Blended Family (What You Do For Love),” “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” “More Than We Know,” and “Holy War.”
You can buy Here on iTunes now.