Twenty years into her career as R&B’s most sophisticated and anthemic singer, songwriter and pianist Alicia Keys can still shock and awe. Her biggest surprise, however, after the space-soul-inflected “Alicia” album of 2020, is what she has done on her newly released double album, “Keys.”
Running through a morning of promotional appearances in New York, Keys told Variety about the two sides to the “Keys” vibe, the latter word being a touchstone in any Alicia convo.
The “Original” side of “Keys,” which speaks to her bluesy, piano-heavy vibe — “a homecoming, if you will” —presents the woman we came to know 20 years ago with her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” an album that won her five Grammys, multi-platinum sales and a devoted fan base. Returning to the mostly stripped-down sound of “A Minor” was as “natural” as breathing. (Keys likes the word “natural,” as well.)
Then there is the “Unlocked’ version of “Keys,” a fully arranged production where “me and my brother Mike Will Made-It re-imagined the ‘Original’, sampled it and created a new perspective.”
Along with Mike Will Made-It, “Keys” plays host to Swae Lee, Pusha T, Lil Wayne, Khalid and Lucky Daye, along with the pianist’s new best friend, Brandi Carlile, with whom Keys just got Grammy-nominated for song of the year for their election-inspired single, “A Beautiful Noise.”
VARIETY: You normally don’t do stealth album drops. We know when a next Alicia Keys album is coming a long time before you drop it because you ramp up with singles, branding connections, press. This one, though, save for hints and a few appearances — nothing. Why?
KEYS: That’s a cool question. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. This piece, “Keys,” just came more organically. I had the “Untold Stories” series with YouTube which opened the door to people seeing their way into my growth, my thought process, where I am. We talked about things that I haven’t before. Now I am willing and able — I have the head and the fearlessness to be in that space — and we could share and tease pieces on this new music that was coming. That was a cool way to engage people in what the music would sound like: In pieces. That was at the end of August into the top of September… The way things creatively flow, now, it is more about organic energy. More natural. In years past, you’re right. Before, it took three months for the first single, then the next single, then you were gonna tour and promo it all over the world … and finally come back to this big moment to release the record. Now, it is a shorter runway A different tempo.
The pandemic has absolutely changed the game.
The way that creativity flows, we are introducing things to people in a way that feels more natural. Faster. We’re having meetings and moments on Zoom that are just different. We’re doing performances on our Instagrams. I love this new world. I’m open to this new world. We can create the energy we want to. It’s better than blaring the trumpet and telling you, “OK, I’M DOING THIS,” every time. Now, just experience what I’m doing while I’m doing it and we can experience it together.
One of the most prominent elements of last year’s “Alicia” album was its willingness to experiment: sonically, in terms of its space-soul vibe, and lyrically in its furthering of an emotional brand of storytelling. Was there something intentional in making “Keys” different from that album, or does that not figure into the organic quality you’re talking about?
Hmmm. I think there are parts of it that are intentional. I always knew that the “Keys” record — we had the title five years ago — was going to follow “Alicia.” Actually, at one point, “Alicia” and “Keys” were going to be the double album, and not what it turned out to be. I knew that “Keys” would be a more singer-songwriter, focused-on-piano album. Very intimate. Like, I knew this would be people’s favorite record. People always want me to be at the piano, in my element. But I didn’t know exactly how the rest of the music would reveal itself, that “Keys” would be this double album, and that it would have so many different entry points, which I tremendously love. So there are parts of “Keys” that are totally unknown, and portions that I had a genuine sense about, but didn’t know exactly how it would arrive.
Twenty years on since “Songs in A Minor,” its success – not just financially – is still prominent in how we think of you. You said it yourself when touching on the singer-songwriter-piano vibe of :Originals.” Did the weight of “Songs in A Minor” figure into “Keys’” stripped-down half?
“Keys” is a homecoming. I knew that it was bringing me back to a place that was familiar for me. One thing I am observing about the world, my journey, our journey together, is that there is a place and moment where you start out, and then after that, everything is so new and unexpected. You break out from who you’ve been and keep growing. You do that, and then you realize that you maybe left behind the original you a little bit. You didn’t mean to leave her behind. You didn’t have any problems with the original you. You’ve just been searching for more of you. Gearing up for “Keys,” and thinking about my relationship to the piano… it felt like, man, I’m coming back. I’m back in my bag. It’s a beautiful circle.
“Nat King Cole” is dedicated to the legend, with lyrics like “You gotta put the time into timeless,” and a dramatic, epic sound. Talk about making that track.
My God. It is so cinematic. It has the strings, and the energy, and the way that the drums drop on it. There’s just so much that takes you about that song. You can’t ignore it. Now, the majority of the songs were written for the “Originals,” then sampled for “Unlocked,” except “Nat King Cole,” which started between Mike and I first. So that actually started as an “Unlocked” track, then I brought it back to the “Originals.” “Lala” started that way, too. The energy in “Nat King Cole” is so cool because it was when me and him first started to collaborate, really sampling songs I had written. Being in the room, falling onto that “King Cole” vibe, we knew it had special magic.
Mentioning Mike Will Made-It, you normally take on several producers with every album: Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams, Tricky Stewart, Swizz Beatz. “Keys” has more than a few producers throughout, but you handle almost all of “Originals” on your own. And the “Unlocked” side is mostly just you and Mike producing. What about these songs made you want that sort of cohesion?
It just felt right. “Keys” has been in my blood for a while. I have always been the producer of my records, as well as their writer and arranger. That gets confused because the world likes to ignore girls sometimes. That’s OK, though. That doesn’t matter because I always knew what I was doing. In this case, going back to the exploration we were talking about… I knew what I wanted to do with the one side of “Keys,” how I wanted to run with it. This is my world. When it came to the Mike side, how I wanted to reimagine and reinterpret it, I knew that one other body could help propel it to that space. When Mike and I connected, he got it. We just needed us two, and we went crazy.
You worked with Brandi Carlile, first on the “A Beautiful Noise” single during the Every Vote Counts campaign, a track that just got 2022 Grammy-nominated for song of the year. Then, Carlile and you wrote and paired up for “Paper Flowers” on “Keys.” How do you two fit?
Brandi is one of my favorite artists of all time. She’s so gifted. What I love most is that she is the ultimate underdog. All odds were against her, and she was destined to be exactly who she is — this force of nature. That’s a lot of my story as well, so we understand each other. We connected. “A Beautiful Noise” was written, produced and engineered all by women. We have an organization, She Is The Music, which is about increasing the amount of women in the industry.… Fast-forward to us getting in a room together to write “Paper Flowers.” To me? That is one of the most special songs on “Keys.” It was natural. Just like everything else we talked about earlier. We stripped it down to her on guitar, me on piano, and our two voices. That’s all you need. Record the truth.
Is there anything you want to discuss about what could be happening with J. Cole, since the two of you recently recorded tracks together?
You know we were in the studio together. Let’s just let the rest be a beautiful surprise.
What do you think that your eighth album says about you that the previous seven did not or could not say?
I feel like this record is classic, timeless, modern. I feel like this record has a confidence to it that I didn’t have before. There’s real clarity and a fun energy infused through it. I really believe that “Keys” says that I’m not going anywhere, that this is my lane. This is where I’m driving. I want you to join me in my space so that we can both be who we truly are.