Staring out from the cover of her new album HERE unadorned by makeup, hair wild and free, and seemingly naked, the message from Alicia Keys seems clear: this is a rebirth, a refusal to take any more shit from anyone, and a chance for the real Alicia Keys to stand up.
Her much vaunted revolt against societal pressure to be made up and the soundbites that demonstrate her commitment to social change could lead you to think that this was an ode to those classic soul albums of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The albums that soundtracked the struggle for an equality that clearly never quite arrived, but helped spark a movement for social change nonetheless.
And you’d be partially correct. In comparison to her previous output and her tendency toward MOR balladry, her sixth studio album sounds fresher and certainly more lyrically varied, but the moments of social crusading are few and far between. Early signs are encouraging (despite a cringeworthy opening interlude). The piano lines of “The Gospel” offer a strident backdrop to the snare drums militaria and her confidently spat lyrics that explore ghetto life.
“Kill Your Mama” is a sobering acoustic tirade against the trappings of modern existence, made more powerful by the fact that her voice lacks the cut-glass quality of other R&B singers. The always welcome Roy Ayers pops up with his ever delightful vibes on “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” and saves the song from some clunky lyrics, before the latter, Nas-inspired “1 Luv” half of the song rounds it out in style.
The album highlight is “Illusion of Bliss,” a slow burning, organ-led slab of drama that is once again given greater gravitas by her less than perfect voice. It feels more real because of her vocal limitations, rather than despite them. From this point on though, standards dip, calling at cod-reggae (“Girl Can’t Be Herself”) and that familiar station of “middle of the road” (“Holy War”).
All of which leaves a feeling of what could have been. Sure there’s a fire in her belly and a stronger showing of social conscience, but it just isn’t enough. This week, of all weeks, it feels like a missed opportunity to be incendiary, dangerous, and brilliant.
Notable Tracks: “The Gospel” | “Illusion of Bliss” | “In Common”