Album Review: Alicia Keys—“Here”

By Alex Ryu, Feature Photo via Alicia Keys Daily

The year of 2016 has been, arguably, the year of the message. From politics to sports, it’s been a continuous trekking progress that is still evolving to this day. You can hear several female artists becoming more conscious with their work, making us one step closer to breaking that glass ceiling. For most artists in this category, works such as Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Solange’s A Seat at the Table, Rihanna’s Anti, Sia’s This is Acting, Mýa’s Smooth Jones, to name a few, highlights the changes that has now defined them under a different perspective. For Alicia Keys, it’s another opportunity knocking back in, with creativity in hand and thoughts to share.

Her first album in four years, Alicia Keys comes back with HERE. She is one of the few artists that defined the neo-soul sound ever since Mary J. Blige broke the ceiling with the then innovative sound. Hell, she wasn’t dubbed “Queen of R&B” for nothing. Her debut album, Songs in A Minor, was praised for Key’s vocal abilities, mature themes and creative instincts with five Grammy wins to back it up. Since then, she continued to reform her sound for every new release to varying levels of high success, releasing singles from time to time (her most recent song without any commercial tie-in being 2014’s“We are Here,” a song that describes Keys’ frustration with national and international issues at the time) as well as trying out other ventures. So how does HERE fare for her?

For this release, Keys ditches her neo-soul/R&B sound once again since 2009’s The Element of Freedom for something experimental and social-inspired with topics that range from current middle and low class issues to questioning her own self to relationship issues (including one about her former marriage to Swizz Beatz). The result, conceptually, is an experience and history-based introspect guided by Keys. This introspect guides her listeners through their past, present and future on the perception of one’s development and the reality of seeing the world that society built. Creatively, it’s definitely experimental with productions that range from a hip hop-inspired, boom bap/jazz combination haunted with piano, strings and/or chorus progression to an acoustic presentation with drums that highlights Keys’ vocal performance. Vocally, Keys combines a performance that makes her the recognizable artist with a simple process that relies on sharing the pain. The result is an album that varies on whether it successfully delivers on concept or quality of performance on each song or not.

On one side of the spectrum, there are songs that introduce some interesting points that could’ve been expanded but falls short by the end, often left open-ended as if it testing the listener’s relatability with Key’s storytelling. For example, “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” is an anthem that openly and poetically describes two lifestyles. Both girls show that “they don’t care” under different reasons: the former wants the diamonds because she wants to dive in situations she believes that she can handle while the latter wants to throw them because she’s taking risks to fight situation she’s in. This apparently ties with the second portion of the song where Keys thanks her long term knowledge of the importance of “One Love” to others. One can argue that the connection, although evident, may seem weak to link. Other songs in the album that follow this trend include “Holy War,” “Work on It,” “Where Do We Begin Now” and “More than We Know.” 


Album Cover for “HERE”

On the other hand, there are songs that showcases where it’s simple enough yet effective; songs like these manages to flesh out enough to spread her message across without having to ask questions on what Keys intended to get across without being forceful or melodramatic. The stand out track “Illusion of Bliss” is a thought-provoking song that discusses when one finds themselves at the bottom of the barrel. Keys delivers (in a performance reminiscent of “Fallin’”) herself as a victim of an unnamed addiction that is spiralling out of her control. To prove her worth, she reminds herself of her persistence, her illusion of bliss, so that she doesn’t become a fallen angel. Other songs in the album that follows this trend include “Pawn It All,” “Girl Can’t Be Herself, ” “Hallelujah,” and “In Common.”

While many of the recent releases combine both being striking and motivational continuing the conscious trend, HERE is an album that scales back from the noise and leaves us in an simple inner state of mind. It may not be the perfect album to channel the inner mind in part of because of Key’s delivery, but it contains enough material, well-fused production, and concepts keeping the listener definitely grooving towards self-awareness. Amid through the smoke and mirrors that is the world today, Alicia Keys remains steadied and on her ground for what comes next. (RCA Records)



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