Alicia Keys goes au naturale on the personal ‘Here’

Alicia Keys

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016 - 6:35pm

Alicia Keys is coming off of a four-year hiatus from making albums, but that doesn’t mean her career has been stagnant. Since Girl on Fire, Keys has been making bold statement after bold statement. Most notably, she has pioneered a #NoMakeup movement and called upon girls to revel in the beauty of their own skin, and has also taken on the role of coach on NBC’s “The Voice,” advising aspiring musicians.

Her newfound roles as maverick and mentor shine through in her latest work, Here. As the title would suggest, the work dwells entirely in the present — it reminds listeners of the necessity of thinking deeply and acting accordingly in this tumultuous time in American history.

Here opens with an interlude, warming listeners up to the weight of the beautiful yet heavy album. “The Beginning (Interlude)” flows seamlessly into “The Gospel,” a track initially backed by sweeping piano and strings that are easily swapped for a snare and a grooving beat as the song builds. Keys’s voice snarls and scratches as she lays down lines depicting a family troubled by poverty, crime and money. She spits, “If you ain’t in a battle how you gon win the fight / Gotta speak the truth when I’m up in the booth.” Right off the bat, Keys makes it known that Here is going to be more than just a friendly, radio-ready record.

The issues tackled by Keys are vast — race relations, environmental issues, womanhood and class. Mirroring the range of subject matter is Here’s musical composition. There are elements of gospel combined with classic hip hop. Soothing piano is paired with steady, almost combative drumbeats. Keys’s voice dances between aggressive, loving and playful. These multiplicities paint Keys as real and complex, as an emotional being rather than a manufactured artist.

Stripping it down to just her voice and a haunting guitar, “Kill Your Mama” is one of the album’s most raw moments. Keys minces no words in telling listeners to respect and better treat the planet, though it’s not always clear if she is speaking about the Earth or a human mother. She takes the enormous relationship between the human race and the planet and shrinks it down to the intimate space between mother and child.

Family and relationships play a large role in Here, especially when considering the complications of Keys’s relationship with current husband Kasseem Dean (a.k.a. Swizz Beatz). On “Blended Family” she addresses the merging of her life with that of Dean and his family. “Work On It” seems to address him directly, lovingly crooning “Darling, so many lies were spread about us … That makes us build all the trust.” The track is hypnotic, layering big, reverberating drums with repeated electronic elements, all encased by Keys’s rolling vocals.

“Girl Can’t Be Herself” is another shout-out to Keys’s personal life as well as her public activism. The track again plays with guitar and bouncing beats, making the tone optimistic despite its heavy societal implications. Its light nature implies that Keys has found freedom in her escape from beauty expectations. Even lines like “Maybe all the Maybelline is covering my self-esteem” exalt her choices rather than reel in what is expected of her.

The album wraps with “Holy War,” a reminder of the importance of love and understanding despite all the trials and tribulations previously addressed. It would be impossible for one to put a label on exactly what Here is trying to convey or accomplish — from the less than successful interludes to tricky tracks like “Pawn It All,” there is always something new being presented. Just like its singer, the album is multifaceted, fresh and full on intrigue.