The Verse’s Will Craigie reviews Alicia Keys’ latest album, Here
Alicia Keys is angry. She is angry at the way the world is superficial and judgemental towards women; the way it ignores the poor and deprived; the way it easily breeds hate and ignorance; the way it judges those who are different and how it grinds you down. This, on the surface, does not make for very happy listening, yet Here is ultimately hopeful and optimistic for the future – if we can only deal with our demons first.
Here is Keys’ first album since 2012’s Girl On Fire, an album which was a return to form after two heartfelt releases. Though these both had some great moments, they were overall cliche and ‘safe’ albums. Here goes one step further. It returns Keys to the neo-soul sound of her first two albums and delivers on the promise that Keys had when she first came onto the scene. Lyrically, she does not deal in subtleties – the one duff track on the album, Holy War, in which Keys doesn’t stand on a soapbox as much as hit you over the head with it even if with good intentions, contains the chorus, “Maybe we should love somebody/ Maybe we could care a little more/ Instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.” It’s unlikely to solve any problems in the UN – but it is refreshing to see Keys really widen her lyrical palette as she did in Songs in A Minor, after subsequent albums which primarily focused on relationships.
Keys joins the many other artists who in the last two years have started to use the platform they possess to say something larger, with particular regards to race and identity when it is needed more than ever. The opening track The Gospel sets the tone, with Keys taking us to ghettos of her home city and raps (yes, raps) about the reality of this world, the same way Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye did in the 70s. In contrast, track Blended Family (What You Do For Love), is a surprisingly sweet ode to family. She becomes a wise older sister in Girl Can’t Be Herself and She Don’t Really Care to a younger generation, in the former explaining her choice to no longer wear makeup, “In the morning from the minute that I wake up/What if I don’t want to put on all that make up?”. The anger comes through in stripped back, Dylanesque “Kill Your Mama” where “money is a dirty business” and Keys starkly states “we fucking blew it”. The most surprising song of all is Where Do We Begin Now where she discusses falling in love with a female friend. Here can, at times, be overbearing but Keys’ ambition and exploration of herself as a black woman and her place in an increasingly confusing world, has resulted in her best album in 13 years. I challenge you not to be moved by the crack in Key’s voice in the chorus of Illusion of Bliss, the album’s standout track.