It is the hub of modern civilization. A holy place where, every year, people from across the nation gather together as millions more watch from the comfort of their homes. A veritable mecca for people of all races, genders, and sexualities that have one thing in common: an unusual appreciation for music videos.
Year after year, MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMA’s) never fail to be a source of excitement. Fights are had. Kanyes are booed. Red carpet looks are either applauded or utterly annihilated by the press.
This year’s big splash, however, was made not by an outrageous look, but a natural one, as Alicia Keys stepped onto the carpet in a black and red dress, braided hair in a high bun, and completely makeup-free. Keys’s glowing face stood out amongst the heavily contoured assortment of celebrities. Keys’s look, although criticized by some, was overwhelmingly celebrated by the news and on social media.
Soon after her appearance at the VMA’s, posters sprang up all across the country, featuring Keys, again makeup-free and surrounded by her huge cloud of hair, a release date, and the album title “HERE” in plain white letters.
With her first studio album in over three years, Keys certainly hasn’t been absent from the public eye during her hiatus from music making. From the VMAs to giving birth to her second son Genesis, to becoming a judge on The Voice, the world has been awaiting the sequel to Keys’ last album, “Girl on Fire,” which spawned several hits and sold over 1.2 million copies worldwide.
“Here,” released November 4, 2016, and preluded by the singles “Hallelujah” and “In Common,” immediately distinguishes itself from Keys’s other albums with its soulful, gritty, and surprisingly elevated sound.
Largely produced by Keys’s husband Swizz Beatz, “Here” has the classic Alicia sound driven by a piano line, but combines other elements, as well. From old school hip-hop-esque beats to acoustic guitar, the album showcases Keys’ talent and stylistic variety while time remaining unmistakably hers.
Similar to Keys’ recent decision to forego makeup, the album, while by no means perfect, marks a stunning transition from the clean, soaring Alicia vocals of the past, and something newer, grittier, realer, and certainly undergoing a change.
Keys has a way of combining a kind of ethereal sound at times, with a New York, down to earth, realness that would seem at home blasting out of a car window, or coming from the mouth of an angel. The raw sound and concept of this album is due in part to the bare bones production and the heavy old-school New York beats, but also in a large part to Keys’s voice.
While we’ve all come to love her soaring vocals in songs like “Girl On Fire” and “If I Ain’t Got You,” in “Here,” Alicia gives up some of that control and instead opts for a more soulful and bluesy sound, experimenting with the grit and breaks in her voice that feel more intimate,and comfortable than Keys’s previous albums.
The album opens with a short poem-like interlude written and produced by Keys and accompanied by piano chords and synth-like strings. The interlude immediately raises some eyebrows with unimpressive rhymes and lyrics (like one comparing Keys to Nina Simone) that at times seem questionable.
Regardless, the interlude sets the stage for an album that features hip-hop, soul, R&B, spoken word, and rap that blend and interact to form true “poetry from the streets,” a subject touched upon later in the album. After the less than stellar introduction, Keys launches into “The Gospel,” a New York ballad filled with electric energy, fast lyrics, and a driving beat and also featured in a 20-minute video of the same name, released with the album on Youtube.
From there, the album opens up “Pawn it All”—a beat-driven song about struggle and hustle in which the “yeahs” and “uhs” at times feel like stand-ins for actual lyrics. Keys then embarks on the acoustic “Kill Your Mama,” a song lamenting climate change.
It’s safe to say that the middle of the album is the strongest. After a rocky beginning, the funky hip-hop standard “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” mesmerizingly gives Keys’s take on life as a black girl. “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” also features some of best lyrics in the album in the chorus “She grew up in Brooklyn/ She grew up in Harlem/ She grew up in Bronx/ She know she was a queen/ But she don’t really care.” These lyrics at once reach out to black women all over the world, touching on the subject of “black girl magic,” and acknowledge the profound apathy and disillusionment of black women at a system historically rigged against them.
The album peaks in the soaring and pained “Illusion of Bliss,” a ballad about addiction. Preceded by a short introduction from the perspective of an addict, “Illusion of Bliss” takes full advantage of the cracks, gravel, and soul in Keys’s voice. While the intensity is somewhat dulled by harmonies in the middle of the song, it stands out both technically and emotionally as one of the highlights of the album.
The end of the album, while less memorable than the middle, is still strong. Including the songs “Blended Family,” a sweet song about Alicia’s childhood and growing up in a biracial family, “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” a salsa-y anthem bemoaning the social pressure to wear makeup, and “Holy War,” the last song on the album, and another dazzling showcase of Keys’s powerful, soulful voice and range.
The album is pieced together by semi-successful interludes that range from conversations to poems to subway announcements that both introduce the songs and inject realness and life into the album. These interludes give a sense of flow to the album and also ground it in the comings and goings of New York as well as the people who inhabit it.
“Here” is certainly Keys’s most socially aware album to date. As discussed above, Keys tackles issues from makeup to climate change. This huge range of topics as well as a range of styles, however, leads to a lack of cohesiveness throughout the album and it is songs like “Kill Your Mama” that sort of fall flat.
Keys’s vocals certainly bring the album together, but unlike the recent Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar albums, there doesn’t seem to be a cohesive concept in the production or subject matter of the songs, giving the album a disjointed quality.
It is this range of topics, however, that also adds a sense of earnestness to the album. Having listened to it once, you immediately get a sense of who Keys is as both an artist and a person and what’s on her mind. In “Here,” what binds the album together as strongly as Keys’s vocals is Keys herself. As an artist, she is present, and raw, and telling her truth, something that, while unsuccessful at times, lends a realness and earnestness to the album that is distinctly her.