Review: Alicia Keys Offers Best Album in a Decade with ‘ALICIA’
Exactly one year and one day ago, Alicia Keys gently kicked off the ALICIA album era. Though we didn’t know it at the time, “Show Me Love” – her amorous collaboration with Miguel – ended up being the lead single, and the first of many on the long road to ALICIA. After the thumping “Time Machine” and uplifting “Underdog,” the album was first expected to come out in March, but COVID-19 derailed the plan. Its pushback to May also ended up falling through. But the unfolding turmoils in the United States and around the world came with some timely, poignant new singles. “Good Job” is the perfect ode to people on the frontlines of this pandemic. “Perfect Way To Die” is a heart-wrenching ballad mourning the continuous murders of Black people at the hands of cops. It wasn’t until later in summer that we got cheerier songs: the chill “So Done” and the stomping “Love Looks Better.”
While the seven singles from ALICIA capture the album’s range and quality, it still didn’t prepare me for just how excellent the album would be. From the very first song, ALICIA oozes a special energy I haven’t heard from Alicia in some time. 2016’s Here was a wonderful step forward for her, but this self-titled new album takes us even further down this road.
The songs here move from attitude and verve to celebration and empowerment to tender sorrow. There’s inspiring self-reflection as well as acute observations of the troubles of today. Alicia has always been great at motivating inner growth and social awareness, especially in her more recent albums. But on ALICIA, she reaches a new level. She never teeters into preachy territory; instead, the songs feel candid and inviting, asking listeners to consider their own perceptions and actions.
Of course, the new album also offers plenty of love – not just for yourself or for strangers, but also of the romantic variety. “Show Me Love” is sultry and chill, while “Jill Scott” is a celebration of PDA. Whereas “Wasted Energy” complains of a relationship with no path forward, “Love Looks Better” and “You Save Me” find that one true love. One of the most impactful songs, though, is “Gramercy Park,” a warning about changing yourself so much for love that by the time they fall for you, you’re not even yourself anymore.
At 15 songs and nearly 55 minutes, ALICIA isn’t a short album. It’s full and rich, and the extra length gives the songs room to breathe. It’s never bogged down or boring, but neither is it rushed in the way that Here sometimes felt. Each song here serves a unique purpose, and the result is an album that is varied, refreshing, and long enough to leave a lasting impression.
I’ve been a fan of Alicia Keys since the beginning, and I can honestly say ALICIA is among her best albums to date. It captures the magic and energy of her first few albums, combining it with the maturity and scope of her more recent work. Across the record, we get to see the many sides of the woman behind the music. This is a masterful collection of songs that stands tall amongst its predecessors.
Track by Track
“Truth Without Love” – Up until now, every studio album Alicia Keys has released has started with an introductory song, always under two minutes. After nearly 20 years, though, it seems she’s decided to change things up: “Truth Without Love” is a proper song more than an intro. Granted, this is still the shortest track on the album, and the only one under three minutes. But even so, this songs drops listeners right into the action. It starts with magic, epic music, complete with harps and soulful choirs in the background. Alicia plays with her voice on the chorus, and even though she’s spilling tea, it’s not until the end that she drops the biggest truth bomb: “truth without love is just a lie.”
“Time Machine” – First released last fall as the second single, “Time Machine” glides in softly, a heavy beat, bass line, and synths building a rich soundscape for Alicia’s empowering lyrics. Perhaps the best part is the crescendoing pre-chorus, the repeated “out of your mind” refrain edging ever higher as Alicia shows off her upper range. It’s a beautiful hook that leads to a funky and low chorus. It may start off unassuming, but “Time Machine” ends up growing into a mesmerizing track with cool replay value.
“Authors Of Forever” – An early highlight on the album, “Authors Of Forever” opens with stuttering, chopped up vocals over atmospheric music. It breaks way for a sonorous verse and a stirring chorus. Alicia sings in her upper mixed register, crooning that “we’re here to make meaning.” The song is hypnotic and divine, contrasting low bass with Alicia’s high vocals to great effect. But while it may feel dreamy, “Authors Of Forever” also rises above the soundscape to offer something uplifting, too.
“Wasted Energy” (feat. Diamond Platnumz) – Haunting vocals give a false start before “Wasted Energy” launches into a reggae beat offset by a looped spoken line. Alicia sings gently over the beat, telling how she learned the hard way that this guy wasn’t worth her time. The chorus hits hard, tapping into a more modern sound. The way Alicia sings the chorus actually sounds a lot like BANKS, which is unexpected but nice. “Wasted Energy” has a laid-back island groove, but it packs a lyrical punch. The song ends with Diamond Platnumz singing the final verse as the music fades out.
“Underdog” – The third single, “Underdog” is an uplifting jolt of sunshine. Over freeing acoustic guitar, Alicia sings about various underdogs: a homeless man, a single mother, a family who escaped an oppressive country. The verses are descriptive, painting a portrait of these characters and their circumstances. Then the chorus comes in with new power, an ode to the hustlers and dreamers. Alicia’s message is clear: Don’t judge others, because they have stories to tell and deserve love and respect. And no matter what you’re going through, there’s a path forward to achieve your goals. By the end of “Underdog,” it sounds like an anthem for us all to take to heart. If only people could live their lives as this song encourages; the world would be a better place for it.
“3 Hour Drive” (feat. Sampha) – ALICIA moves into serene territory for the next few songs, starting with “3 Hour Drive.” The track starts off sounding like we’re in a warm pool of water, making a dreamy and atmospheric backdrop. After Alicia sings the first verse and chorus, Sampha takes on the second verse and chorus. From there, they trade lines evenly, making for an immersive duet. This song is a moody experience, lovely and calming.
“Me X 7” (feat. Tierra Whack) – That vibe continues as track #7 tiptoes in. The first verse is lyrically tense, but it soon gives way to a playful chorus. Youthful percussion lightens the mood, then Alicia amps up the humor when she cries “me” seven times in a row. I feel her declaration that she should “push my 3:00 to no o’clock” on a personal level. After the second chorus, Tierra Whack raps a verse that adds to song’s carefree attitude. It’s a cute and fun track.
“Show Me Love” (feat. Miguel) – 366 days ago, we got “Show Me Love” as the first single. It opens with gentle guitar, sparse percussion and extra instruments slowly joining in. Alicia croons the chorus first, singing about fearlessly expressing love for another. Alicia and Miguel trade lines during the verses, occasionally harmonizing together and providing backing vocals for each other. It’s a gorgeous duet that mixes Alicia and Miguel’s voices to create a rich soundscape. If it doesn’t capture you at first, just you wait: “Show Me Love” is an undeniable, chilled-out bop that will eventually become a highlight.
“So Done” (feat. Khalid) – That calm vibe moves us seamlessly into “So Done,” released as the sixth single last month. This Khalid feature is a laid-back tune with a fittingly serene message. Over minimalist R&B instrumentation, the duo sings about being over life’s stressors and drama, and over their own self-imposed limitations. Instead, effective immediately, they’re committing to living how they want: freely and happily. This chill song is sure to inspire feel-good vibes and motivation to follow your own path. And just as it connected sonically with “Show Me Love” before it, “So Done” also connects lyrically with the next song…
“Gramercy Park” – The self-empowerment theme of “So Done” continues into “Gramercy Park,” but this song feels more starkly significant. It starts as a rootsy, singer-songwriter tune, Alicia singing gently over acoustic guitar and ticking percussion. She describes how she’s been changing in order to win another’s affection. But as she croons on the chorus, by the time they fell for her, she realized she no longer recognized herself. They weren’t in love with her, but rather a person she was trying to be. The lyrics are searingly gut-wrenching, and I’m sure we’ve all felt like this at some point in our lives. If that wasn’t enough, though, “Gramercy Park” swells into something altogether more beautiful and dreamy as strings fill out the end of each chorus. This is perhaps the biggest centerpiece of the album.
“Love Looks Better” – Only one week ago – just days before confirming the ALICIA release date – we got “Love Looks Better” as the seventh single. Low piano grounds the song as a stomping beat adds energy. Alicia sings about the desires that first pushed her to achieve her dreams and climb her way to the top. But as we move into the pre-chorus – adding in fluttering high keys – she describes her love wasting away. By the soaring chorus, she’s found the right target for her love. The tail end of the chorus adds in nostalgic synths, sweetly harkening back to a past musical landscape. “Love Looks Better” brings a lot of energy, balancing out some of the ballads and more chill songs here.
“You Save Me” (feat. Snoh Aalegra) – Piano opens “You Save Me,” feeling comfortingly familiar and elegant. Crooning along with her piano, Alicia crafts a gorgeous love song devoted to someone who’s been through the ups and downs with her. Alicia references her early song “Rock Wit You” as the chorus ends, intentionally or not. Snoh Aelegra takes on the second chorus, her voice beautiful and complementary to Alicia’s. A choir subtly fills out the sound, making this lovely song even richer.
“Jill Scott” (feat. Jill Scott) – Another playful track, “Jill Scott” started off as Alicia trying to make a song that sounds like the singer Jill Scott. Things got even better when Jill Scott joined on for the song; funny enough, they kept the working title as it was. Over a sort of bossa nova rhythm, Alicia sings of her desire to be loved on in public. She’s proud of who she’s with, and she’s not afraid of a little public display of affection. Jill Scott amplifies the song with a beautiful spoken verse of righteous love. Subtle nature sounds run throughout until the track ends with the sound of rain and moving strings – a perfect transition into the solemn next song.
“Perfect Way To Die” – In June – not long after the murder of George Floyd, the consequent rise in public outrage over police brutality, and the overdue rise in support for Black Lives Matter – Alicia released her timely, heartbreaking fifth single. “Perfect Way To Die” is a tender piano ballad in which the words take center stage. Alicia paints a scene of a mother getting a phone call and learning that her son has been shot. He’s too young to die, with so much he could have done in the life ahead of him, but now he’ll never get to grow old. It’s a direct and poignant song that encapsulates the troubles the plague America today. It’s impossible not to cry when listening to “Perfect Way To Die,” a striking highlight on ALICIA.
“Good Job” – ALICIA ends on a positive note, something we could all use more of in 2020. First released as the fourth single last spring, “Good Job” is a gentle ballad and a soft close to a dynamic album. Against just her piano, Alicia sings to unsuspecting heroes. These heroes may not know it, but they’re doing a wonderful job of making the world lovely. Alicia highlights teachers, doctors, soldiers, single mothers, and hustlers, but it could also be directed at all the people on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, “The world needs you now; know that you matter.” It’s a final offering of warmth in a world that can be cold. This is the power of Alicia Keys, distilled into one heartfelt song.
ALICIA Score: 5/5
Highlights on ALICIA include: “Time Machine,” “Authors Of Forever,” “Wasted Energy,” “Underdog,” “Gramercy Park,” “Love Looks Better,” and “Perfect Way To Die.”
You can stream or buy ALICIA at all the major music providers here.