Legendary vocalist Alicia Keys’ seventh self-titled studio album has essentially been seeing COVID-related delays all year long, but it has finally arrived. Four years after her incredibly solid Here, which saw her using her powerhouse vocals over some more adventurous R&B-leaning instrumentals from her husband Swizz Beats, ALICIA finds her mostly looking outside of the family and ending up with a politically-oriented, trendier, and much more low-key project in line with the alt-R&B wave of today. While Keys’ singing voice alone is quite often more than enough to keep just about any track from crossing over into an unenjoyable territory, her messages often come across and muddled and surface-level in a time when we really need them, and the music tends to follow suit. Keys is clearly aiming for widespread relatability and accessibility with inspirational platitudes, and she places them within her most universally accessible and ultimately forgettable album musically. There are a couple highlights where she really puts her unparalleled musicianship to work in the right way, but for the most part, it seems like this album was meant to serve as more of a social statement that falls flat than a musically engaging endeavour.
The album opens with the orchestral and improvisatory-sounding track “Truth Without Love,” which sees Keys rhythmically riffing over a slowly building cinematic instrumental as she introduces the album’s overarching theme – essentially, the idea that an overwhelming commitment to showing love to all people will solve all of the world’s problems. The track never really comes together musically, as Keys applies a questionable vocal filter that subdues the power in her voice for the song’s chorus. Honestly, the weirdest element of the song is a guy coming in to shout “Truth! Truth! Truth!” like it was some kind of bombastic rap track. Keys has mentioned she wanted to make her album “genreless,” but this isn’t the way to do it. The next two tracks on the album certainly fare much better – “Time Machine” is one of the instances where Keys rapidly flitting in and out of different sounds actually makes for something oddly compelling. Built mostly around a Michael Jackson-esque funk groove, Keys slides into the chorus with a beautifully layered section as she reaches higher and higher into her range, the song suddenly snapping to a blaring horn and dubstep breakdown as she decisively makes her point. It’s something that definitely catches you off guard the first time, but is easy to grow on you – mostly due to Keys’ vocal charisma. Mark Ronson hops on the track “Authors of Forever,” which comes with one of the more memorable choruses on the album, Keys firmly in her light and angelic vocal sweet spot over some tropical keys and booming drum fills as she analyzes the different life paths people take when choosing hate or love. The conclusion “whoever you are, it’s alright” is a little unexpected and oddly ambivalent in our current climate, but she definitely sounds great singing it.
The next two tracks see Keys maintaining aspects of the more tropical direction she previously introduced, taking two completely different roads by teaming up with African artist Diamond Platnumz for one and Ed Sheeran for the other. The track “Wasted Energy” is certainly a calming reggae vibe that delivers more of an authentic experience as Platnumz appears at the end of the track to deliver some vocals in Swahili, but it’s far from the kind of music Keys should be making with the kind of voice she possesses. The track “Underdog,” on the other hand, is one of the most obnoxiously generic tracks Keys has ever made. Intentionally destined for inspirational montage background music, the hook is anchored by a tired millennial whoop falsetto (look it up on Wikipedia) as Keys runs through a list of everyday citizens contributing to society that will one day “rise up.” It’s the kind of song that everyone will love for the same reason they love the vague breakthroughs of astrology. It’s so strange that a track like this exists, because when Keys really nails it with a message, she’s capable of bringing a tear to my eye. The track “Perfect Way to Die” is a huge example. Sung from the perspective of a mother who has lost her son to police violence, she describes the ensuing protests and halfheartedly suggests that at the very least, her son picked the perfect way to die, as his death may inspire widespread global change. It’s an absolute emotional battering ram of a track, and Keys really sells it vocally. Of course, this is followed up by closer “Good Job,” a track dedicated to frontline medical workers that doesn’t offer anything more than its title as a thank you.
The album’s middle sees Keys recruit a string of features that would typically be incredibly exciting to see alongside of her, but unfortunately just sink back into these quieter tracks just the same. We geta string of Sampha, Tierra Whack, Miguel and Khalid on this project, and these are the kinds of songs that see the fire of the first three diluted down to sounding more like Khalid, instead of the other way around. Like I said earlier, however, even these slow-paced alt-R&B tracks are more enjoyable than they would typically be simply due to Keys’ commendable vocal talent. Her acrobatics on the track “3 Hour Drive” counteract the sleep-inducing creeping and minimalist instrumental and repetitive chorus, and her aching and believable delivery on “Me x 7” as she laments giving all her love out to the world and not saving any for herself is powerful enough to partially override one of the more melodically underwritten tracks here and a criminally underused Tierra Whack. A collaboration between two of the most impressive working vocalists in Keys and Miguel should have been absolute fireworks, but it’s a breathy slow jam over little more than an acoustic loop. It’s a well-executed enough song, but these two are capable of so much more. The Keys and Khalid collab is called “So Done,” and the joke essentially writes itself, especially when the two have no vocal chemistry whatsoever. It’s Khalidisms at their worst.
Many of the album’s highlights actually come closer to the end. The track “Gramercy Park” sees Keys actually take up a bit of a country flair and pull it off surprisingly well. An unrequited crush anthem, Keys proves that sometimes simplicity is better with a stripped-back singer-songwriter angle that really shows off some of the more impressive segments of her voice as she leans into the track’s twang. “You Save Me” sees Keys team up with one of her most obvious artistic descendants in Snoh Aalegra as they flex their vocal muscles on a jazzy piano duet, while the track “Jill Scott,” unfortunately not recruiting the legend for a vocal feature, sees her deliver a spoken word outro after one of Keys’ more sweetly-sung melodies here as she indulges in the PDA to put a little more love into the world. It’s actually a pretty convincing Scott impression from Alicia herself. But of course, you knew Ryan Tedder would show up eventually on a project like this and it’s on the track “Love Looks Better,” full of laughably overused lyrical cliches and falling into the faux-uplifting sound even more shamelessly than “Underdog.”
ALICIA is Keys’ most uneven album, but this is still a legend we’re talking about. I wish that most of the album wasn’t coloured by half-baked attempts at a political message or a generally uplifting one, but when she connects, it’s still as good as ever and her fans will still be able to find a couple tidbits of greatness here.
Favourite Tracks: Perfect Way To Die, Gramercy Park, Authors Of Forever, Jill Scott
Least Favourite Track: So Done