Alicia Keys spent the first five albums of her career as a sleekly sophisticated singer-songwriter and pianist, crafting anthemic R&B that was often bold but just as often bland. After releasing 2012’s “Girl on Fire,” she grew tired of such perfection, stopped wearing make-up and released “Here,” a raw, unrefined album filled with nervous jazz-R&B-hop and lyrics that looked into the topicality of the environment, poverty and addiction. It wasn’t exactly Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” but it was as close as Keys had come to standing outside the shadows of silken soul so to see the cracked, funky mess below.
“Alicia” goes further, freakier, funkier, quieter and jazzier down that gritty path, with experiments in subtly melodic soul and impressionistic lyrics whose emotions go beyond unsettled romance. Rather than rely on musical tropes of her past, “Alicia” touches on the sonic frippery of textured sequencers, ambient sound and electro, all while maintaining her usual McCoy Tyner-meets-Laura Nyro-like feel for the piano. The spaciousness allows Keys to let her nuanced, versatile voice do the talking like never before. All this makes Keys’ seventh studio album her best, and finds her easing up on the obvious hooks and pushing the limits of her voice and imagination.\
On the opener, “Truth Without Love,” a twilight string arrangement opens to Keys rushing her conversation until her chatter becomes slurry and slushy. “What if I wasn’t Alicia/ Would it please ya?,” she rhymes, giving her the song’s tail end a Badu-esque finale. The swipe-and-swoosh soul of “Time Machine” finds Keys’ reverb-dripping voice pushed to the back, then given multilayered harmonies, before reaching a synth-bass-filled chorus. As “Wasted Energy” unfurls with dub guitar flips, samba snaps and sampled squeals, Keys’ finds a curt vocal line in the center of the reggae-riffic swirl to tell a tale of being ignored and unloved (“Too many times you turn a blind eye to how I feel”). By the time she gets to the lonely “Authors of Forever,” Keys allows the soft quiver in her voice to carry the melody. It’s a daring trick, allowing a non-emphasized moment such a powerful place in the melody.
There are a lot of features: “3 Hour Drive” features British vocalist Sampha, “Me x 7” finds Philly rapper Tierra Whack doing her best Eartha Kitt impersonation, “Show Me Love” co-stars a smokey Miguel and “So Done” finds Keys and Khalid playful swapping verses.
While guitars are featured often on the album — particularly on the Ed Sheeran-co-write “Underdog” and the country blues of “Gramercy Park” — Keys is still a soul pianist at heart, with an open, honest voice go with it. And “Alicia” is still a singer and pianist’s album. — only now she’s shifting the 88s into new shapes.
At first, “Love Looks Better,” produced and written with Ryan Tedder and Taylor Swift collaborator Noel Zancanella — sounds like All-Star Alicia, with heaving piano and a raw vocal — until, Keys’ block-rocking piano marches with an industrial stomp, and the sweetness of her message looks elsewhere, and her melody takes on an oblong Celtic lilt. “You Save Me” has a similar semi-familiar feel, where a growling, quavering Keys trades verbal licks with Swedish co-singer/writer Snoh Aalegra.
The final two songs on “Alicia” offer a one-two punch that’s both disturbing and heartening. Here, her most forlorn and topical turn — “Perfect Way to Die” — is also her most musically pleasing. With its chamber pop vibe and its light chorus, it almost sounds like a Broadway song — until Keys pulls back and reveals a mother’s tearful grief at hearing that her son’s been gunned down.
“Baby, don’t you close your eyes
‘Cause this could be our final time
And you know I’m horrible at saying goodbye
And I think of all you could have done
At least you’ll stay forever young
I guess you picked the perfect way to die.
Rather than pull all the air out of the album’s close, Keys chooses ringing celebration with “Good Job.” With muted beats and churchy piano behind her renowned upper register, Keys sings of love as the engine that makes things work, and how the “mothers fathers teachers and preachers who reach us” drive the big, joyful machine. Yet, rather than sound “Girl on Fire” big and empowered, Keys sounds humbler and humbled. “Don’t get too down, the world needs you now,” she sings in hearty harmony with herself, a bittersweet closing to a midlife album that could herald a new beginning.