Since storming to the top of the charts as a twenty-year-old in 2001 with ‘Fallin’’, Alicia Keys has managed to shift over 40 million albums, thus cementing herself as one of the biggest selling female R&B singers of all time. Since 2009’s scaled-back, ballad-heavy The Element of Freedom, Alicia has flickered between a more poppy sound in 2012’s Girl On Fire, and an alternative R&B turn with her last record, 2016’s Here.
For her seventh studio album, ALICIA, the R&B juggernaut decided it was time to go inward in an attempt to excavate her true self. Bold, unapologetic, and searingly honest lyrics are aplenty here, while Keys makes it her mission to launch listeners onto an astral plane of self-acceptance, and heightened awareness.
In a recent interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, Keys admitted that her younger self was too ready to please others. This is a feeling that is vocalised in ‘Gramercy Park’, where she apologises for “trying to be everything you want me to be”.
She claims her power back on ‘So Done’, proclaiming “I’m so done / fighting myself / going through hell / I’m living the way I want.” On other parts of the record, Alicia salutes the under-heard hustlers in today’s pandemic-stricken world, and name-checks the “single mothers” and “student doctors”.
The range and star-power of the collaborations on this album are impressive, spanning from newer talents like Khalid, Tierra Whack, and Snoh Aalegra, to mainstays Miguel and Sampha, and finally to soul supreme Jill Scott who sings on a delightful soft hum of a song that is named after her.
The slick funk and dizzy beats of ‘Time Machine’ (her most audacious sound since 2016’s ‘In Common’) stand out amongst a glittering sea of introspective soul-baring slow jams. “Once you free your mind / there’s beauty in everything”, she intones. Uplifting lyricism is abound, none more so than in ‘Authors of Forever’: “We’re here to make meanin’ for as long we’re breathin’ / and it’s alright / whoever you are / it’s alright”.
On ‘Wasted Energy’, Alicia laments the broken promises and emptiness of an unravelling relationship. The track includes a verse from Tanzanian artist Diamond Platnumz, who adds a uniquely African flair to the atmosphere when he sings in his native Swahili. You’d be forgiven for thinking the Sampha guesting ‘3 Hour Drive’ is his own track, as the British singer’s meditative tones mesh perfectly with a delectably hazy backdrop. But if Alicia took a backseat in ‘3 Hour Drive’, she’s in first place in ‘Me x 7’, a signature slow-burning belter.
The energy suddenly picks up on ‘Love Looks Better’, where Keys proudly boasts that her “love looks better” on her partner. Her soaring vocals on this track add to an atmosphere of urgency, where Keys wants to “stop for a minute” as she declares “all I want to do is you”.
She ends the album with a true-to-form Alicia Keys-esque ballad, ‘Good Job’, where she pays tribute to the everyday heroes that the world needs now more than ever. Good job, Alicia.
Words by Marco Marcelline
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