A living legend, Alicia Keys could never make another album and her legacy would be solidified. In fact, her legacy has been solidified for years now. Nonetheless, like any true artist, she looks forward and challenges herself and her audience on her expansive and rewarding new album, ALICIA. Underscored by an impressive list of guest artists (Miguel, Tierra Whack, Jill Scott, Snoh Aalegra, and more) and a sonically ambitious collection of songs that pull from myriad genres, ALICIA is easily one of the icon’s most cohesive records. Not only is the album cohesive, but it also builds on the narrative threads of self-worth, social justice, and romance that Alicia has sewn into each and every one of her albums.
Admittedly, this record was preceded a seemingly endless singles campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic pushing the release from March 20 to September 18. In the interim, Alicia released seven out of the album’s fifteen tracks, nearly all of which sound purposeful and make sense in the context of the whole record. ALICIA features two prominent narrative threads: one that is concerned with personal growth during the ebbs and flows of a relationship and another that tackles sociopolitical topics like essential work and police brutality. However, the two narrative threads don’t really intersect, and this causes the album to feel thematically fragmented despite its sonic cohesiveness.
“Truth Without Love” is a stunning intro. Steeped in neo-soul and anchored by a hybrid of singing, rapping, and spoken word, the song is an introspective look at a frantic mind — a mind boggled with insecurity, worry, and a search for love. The lush orchestration (The-Dream’s background vocals are perfect) makes for an opening that effectively grabs the listener’s attention while still feeling like classic Alicia Keys. From there, Alicia launches into a sonic odyssey where she visits a new producer (Jimmy Napes, Tricky Stewart, Ludwig Göransson, etc.) or collaborator at every turn. Despite all the cooks in the kitchen, she still ties everything together by focusing on more restrained vocal choices and flexing her familiar songwriting strengths. On “Time Machine” and “Authors of Forever,” which features production contributions from Mark Ronson (“Shallow,” “Electricity“), Alicia dips into funk influences with swanky bass and synths. The latter hosts a fun drum pattern that simultaneously sells the idea of a full Alicia Keys dance album and predictably preaches that we have the power to write and rewrite our own stories. On the other hand, the former interpolates a vocal melody from Solange‘s “Cranes In The Sky” as Alicia sings about finding the strength to get out of her own head. Alicia has made classic anthems that are empowering and motivating like “No One” or “Girl On Fire,” but neither of these new songs have hooks that are strong enough to counterbalance the blandness of the lyrics. On “Authors of Forever,” Alicia sings “Where there’s light, there must be a shadow/Cloudy skies and rain make a rainbow”; lyrics like these unfortunately make her blend into the scores of adult contemporary radio staples that sing vaguely “empowering” and “uplifting” songs. This issue plagues other songs like “Good Job,” a tribute to essential workers that ends the album on a weirdly somber note. The good news: Alicia Keys is an artist that refuses to blend in.
On Alicia, the singer bounces across genres lines from dub to country and soul and more. “Wasted Energy,” which features two-time BET Awards nominee and Tanzanian bonga flava star Diamond Platnumz, is an instant standout. Lyrically, the song chronicles the beginning of a relationship’s demise and the harmonies in the hook are absolutely gorgeous. With afrobeats superstars like Wizkid, Burna Boy, and Tiwa Savage gaining more traction Stateside (thanks, in small part, to collaborations with Drake, Beyoncé, Sam Smith, etc.), Alicia choosing to collaborate with Diamond Platnumz was a smart and forward-thinking choice. Sonically, the track pushes her boundaries in a way that “Good Job” or “Love Looks Better” don’t have the range to. Similarly, Alicia collaborates with two male R&B superstars: Miguel and Khalid. “Show Me Love,” the album’s lead single, is still timeless and more than deserving of the 2021 Best R&B Performance Grammy. The Khalid collaboration, “So Done,” continues with the general theme of “Time Machine” and champions individualism over the confines of constricting social and self-imposed standards. In addition, Khalid’s slight rasp juxtaposed against Alicia’s breathy tone makes for a gorgeous moment.
Alicia also recruits Jill Scott for the aptly titled “Jill Scott,” a lush tribute to a neo-soul icon that evokes Jill in all of her sultriness and sensuality. Sampha, however, is the most rewarding feature on the album. On “3 Hour Drive,” his heartbreaking voice traces each scale down the descending chord progression as he joins Alicia in detailing a devastating story of separation. This is easily one of the most beautiful duets Alicia has ever recorded and the bridge is the single best moment on the album. Unfortunately, not every guest artist brings this magic to their respective songs. Rising R&B songstress Snoh Aalegra offers up a sleepy duet by the name of “You Save Me.” The song feels like a weak example of what Snoh and Alicia could create together. Grammy-nominee Tierra Whack briefly appears on “Me x 7” which is one of the album’s lowest moments. Tierra’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it verse doesn’t really say anything, the hook gets annoying quickly, and the eclectic production doesn’t have the payoff that one would hope. At the very least, it’s nice to see Alicia collaborating with the new class of female rappers. There is one moment on ALICIA, however, that ranks as one of the most outstanding music moments of the year: “Gramercy Park.” Named after a park in Alicia’s hometown of New York City, the song is an expert examination of the interconnectedness of country and R&B. Over a folk/country-esque guitar line, Alicia tells a heartbreakingly nostalgic story of losing herself to fit an image of what her lover and people around her wanted her to be. “And it’s become easy to hide pieces away/Making up someone in the hope that you’ll stay,” Alicia sings, a tender moment that really digs into the emotional vulnerability that anchors the album. Finally, “Perfect Way To Die,” which should’ve been the album closer, is a soul-baring take on police violence against Black lives. She invokes the lives and stories of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin with respect and gentleness.
In recent years on social media, there’s been a lot of history rewriting concerning Alicia’s career and talent. The narrative has shifted to her personal life and a relatively uninformed look at what some consider to be a vocal and artistic decline. The fact of the matter is, Alicia has consistently delivered excellent R&B since the start of her career and this new album is no different. Despite a few misses, the album takes Alicia to new sonic ground while telling two stories that, despite their differences, both add necessary emotional layers to the record. ALICIA was a long time coming, and ultimately it was worth the wait.
Key Tracks: “Truth Without Love” | “3 Hour Drive” | “Gramercy Park” |”Wasted Energy” | “Perfect Way To Die”