Photo Credit: Milan Zrnic
The legend of Alicia Keys has taken on a life of its own as she grows into a new phase in her illustrious career. She is one of a handful of artists who can handle the gravitas of a mononym without advertising herself as such, Alicia finally capitalizes on that renown by plastering it in our faces, giving her seventh album the dual blessings of an eponymous title that’s also capitalized all the way through. As a multitalented instrumentalist and perhaps one of the most accomplished pianists of her peer group, Keys’ music has always hinged on contrasting unexpected influences with a classical sensibility.
All but one of her records begin with extravagant piano introductions, yet as a set, her records are primarily driven by more resonant percussive elements, especially bass drums. On ALICIA, “Truth Without Love” functions as a pared-back musing of an introduction featuring Keys complaining about the saltiness of her adversaries over strings that exquisitely cascade up the scale.
ALICIA leans much harder into the funk sensibilities Keys has explored in past efforts, most recently “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv” from her 2016 record HERE. “Time Machine”, the record’s lead single, is simultaneously exactly what to expect from her and unlike everything that’s come before it in her discography. Keys suffers the curse of possessing an exacting vision and such immense talents, that appearing care-free becomes incredibly difficult and unlikely, as if she has to work harder to appear to work less. “Time Machine” flips that suggestion on its head, giving in to a breathless pre-chorus that swallows the listener up whole as it lurches into the chorus, a trunk-banging funk jam that is too fun to think twice about and is gone before you have the chance to.
Two decades into her career now, Keys is defining this new era by the up-and-comers she chooses to collaborate with. ALICIA is overflowing with contributing talent, from tried-and-true to fresh and new. Young, Philadelphia-based hip hop heavyweight and Badu protégée Tierra Whack lends her ingenuity to the breezy self-love anthem “Me x 7.” Swedish-Persian R&B crooner Snoh Aalegra perfectly complements Keys with her whiskey-velvet vocals on the emotional piano ballad highlight “You Save Me”, their songwriting styles pairing astonishingly well. Tanzanian Flava artist Diamond Platnumz pops up singing in his native tongue on the effortless “Wasted Energy” that sounds like Keys trying on Rihanna for size and loving it – the dancehall-inflected track fizzles on the strength of her comfortable confidence.
This record evolves the story of Alicia Keys to a point where songs that sound the most traditionally attributable to her catalog end up standing out for the wrong reasons. On “Underdog”, she name-checks frontline workers, homelessness, hustlers, and single mothers, but the song sits sandwiched between two album standouts with exciting features that drown out the track’s good-natured message. “Love Looks Better” also carries Keys’ traditionally positive and self-assured nature in its melody but it’s saccharine, much too sweet to complement the rest of the album’s more mature sensibilities. Making it completely through the reasonable hour-long runtime is more difficult than it should be, mostly because of the onslaught of piano ballads in the second half that are more often than not replaceable.
It’s refreshing to feel some new feelings from an artist as established as Alicia Keys. She’s graduating into household-name territory, hosting award shows and popping up in conversations with Grandma or a local shopkeeper. As she grows, her music has cautiously reached toward evolution rather than revolution, and the sound of a completely revitalized and re-invigorated Alicia still evades us. She takes some convincing steps out of her comfort zone here on ALICIA, but it’s altogether too familiar, and held too far back by her dabbles in genres she’s already mastered. It’s a mostly-confident album from an always-confident artist, but upon winding down toward the end, it leaves a feeling of longing for more.