First off, excuse the unintentional pun in the title. Now, there’s always been this hip-hop edge to Alicia Keys that I’ve loved; she has this beauty and grace about her, but her gorgeous vocals have a certain soulfulness to it that’s hard to fake. Since she dropped “Fallen,” with a visual that followed the corn-rowed singer visiting her boyfriend in jail, the NYC songstress has been making an exuberant blend of both motivational and love songs from the perspective of the underdog — that so happens also to appeal to the struggling dreamer in all of us. For day one fans, she’s grown up — but so have we; I remember bumping her debut album in my Discman while wearing a Durag and oversized throwback jersey. She’s now a mother, wife, and actress, amongst other things. But no matter how much things change, she never seems to forget where she came from or lose the fundamental elements that birthed her musical nucleus in the first place. That could’ve been exemplified any better on Here, her highly anticipated new record that hit Apple Music this morning.
The album begins with a spoken-word piece, followed by “The Gospel,” an energetic piano driven record that stems from her upbringing Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan; “…in my tenement, listening to the hook — ‘Change gon come,’ spirit of Sam Cook.” From here, without wavering too far from the aura of openness she creates, she explores a multitude of themes. They range from addiction (“Illusion of Bliss”), women’s rights (“Girl Can’t Be Herself”), to being a step parent on the A$AP Rocky-assisted “Blended Family,” which we saw a few weeks ago. Two standout records — for me — were “Pawn It All,” which floats themes of giving it all up and starting anew, and the über jazzy hip-hop infused “She Don’t Really Care.” The latter’s use of not only the classic “Bonita Applubum” break, and Nas’s iconic Q-Tip produced “One Love,” but a subtle nod to UTFO’s “Roxanne Roxanne” with her intro chant of “oh yeah, oh yeah.”
Alicia Keys made headlines over the past months for not wearing makeup, which is bananas. She’s a beautiful girl — with or without it. This sentiment, which is a not so subtle commentary on the constraints the media and society place on women. “Girl Can’t Be Herself” discusses how her heart breaks seeing girls who can’t truly be themselves; “Who says I should conceal what I’m made of — maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem.”
The album ends with “Holy War,” a heartfelt call to “love somebody instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.” The euphemism is used to describe the [racial, sexual, religious] segregation we as people have ultimately constructed. She questions near the song’s end, “what if love was holy, and war was obscene.”
This record is an important one, and I honestly see it as Alicia Keys emitting a brand of truth, emotion, and power that is reminiscent of artists like Nina Simone. Here is a beautiful album, and a breath of fresh air. Thank you, Alicia.