ALICIA KEYS: HERE (2016)
1) The Beginning (Interlude); 2) The Gospel; 3) Pawn It All; 4) Elaine Brown (interlude); 5) Kill Your Mama; 6) She Don't Really Care / 1 Luv; 7) Elevate (interlude); 8) Illusion Of Bliss; 9) Blended Family (What You Do For Love); 10) Work On It; 11) Cocoa Butter (Cross & Pic interlude); 12) Girl Can't Be Herself; 13) You Glow (interlude); 14) More Than We Know; 15) Where Do We Begin Now; 16) Holy War; 17*) Hallelujah; 18*) In Common.
Well now, talk about a radical image overhaul — observable as early on as your first look at the album cover, a sharp contrast with the heavily made-up fembot image of Girl On Fire (more like Gynoid On Battery Power, if you ask me). Not only is the lady not wearing any makeup, but just in case you were distracted by the huge Afro, she even sings a song about it (ʽGirl Can't Be Herselfʼ). And that is far from the only socially relevant topic being covered: Here is her most politicized and overall «tough» album ever, driven by a strong desire to break out of the «pop» stereotype and assert a stronger artistic personality than...
...hey, wait a minute, we are talking about Alicia freakin' Keys, so before we go on, let us bring up all the precious biases. She is a not half-bad pianist, but pretty much squandered that talent on pop clichés, because she wanted too much (or, if we are going to be kind, because all the other mean dudes wanted her) to become a soul diva. She's got songwriting talent, but has more often than not wasted it on fluffy, insubstantial material. She's never been a leader, always a follower; and she's always relied much stronger on her good looks than should be appropriate for a major artist. She always presented herself as energetic and exciting, but usually came out as your average mainstream, plodding, boring, third-rate artist. With all that in mind, can she actually pull it together to make an intelligent, provoking, stimulating record?
Personal opinion with bias: she cannot. Personal opinion with relaxed bias: she cannot, but she comes fairly close. There is no question in my mind that she is once again being a follower rather than a leader — riding on the relative creative explosion of Afro-American artists in the last two years, and clearly with Beyoncé as a role model (it is hardly surprising that a period of about six months separates Here from Lemonade), although there's plenty of indications that she'd been hung up on Kendrick Lamar as well. Her creativity level, unsurprisingly, has not gone up: even though she writes or at least co-writes all the material herself, the melodies remain simplistic and / or too dependent on piano pop clichés, and the lyrics suffer from predictable moralistic straightforwardness or common places ("when a girl can't be herself no more / I just wanna cry, I just wanna cry" is a fairly typical one) — and the «nifty touches» can be overbearing and reeking of cheap symbolism. I mean, does she really have to sample the Wu-Tang Clan in order to be accepted into the Street Tough League? Gimme a break. And yet...
...and yet, strangely enough, once she is done with the pompous intro ("I'm Nina Simone in the park and Harlem in the dark" — I know she is impersonating the spirit of the turntable, but still it must be so cool for Alicia Keys to be able to say that she is Nina Simone, right?), anyway, once she is done with that and starts her piano-and-strings-based rap on ʽThe Gospelʼ, there is something authentic in there. I'm not sure that there really are any truly painful memories here, given Alicia's relatively safe and cozy upbringing in downtown Manhattan, but perhaps there's something in the blood — the piano and the voice sound more genuinely «on fire» than anything on Girl On Fire. No, she is not the ideal candidate for a truly tough, dangerous, keep-your-fuckin'-distance asserter of Black Woman Freedom (although she now knows how to use the F-word, too), but she does not come across as a total embarrassment, either.
Perhaps part of the reason for this is the record's decent production style — very sparse on the whole, usually just a hip-hop/R&B beat with some keyboards (usually acoustic piano, but sometimes electric piano or even something a bit more exotic, like the vibraphone), maybe a little acoustic guitar on the side; no plastic synthesizer textures, no fake orchestration, no huge walls of sound to mask the lack of musical ideas. In a setting like this (perhaps also influenced by Wu-Tang Clan?) even mediocre melodies can be easily tolerated, and some actually transcend mediocre — for instance, I'm quite partial to the «blues-hop» of ʽPawn It Allʼ, where Alicia sings (and plays) in her lowest register to convince you that she is really ready to pawn all these gold and diamond rings "just so I could start my life over again". (So brace yourselves, pawn shop owners all over Manhattan!). And she enlists some first-rate talent to help her out, too — for instance, ʽShe Don't Really Careʼ features vibraphone playing from no less than Roy Ayers, the guru of the instrument, himself.
I do have to state, however, that if you have only heard the two singles from the album, then you do not know what it is about. Both ʽIn Commonʼ and ʽBlended Familyʼ (the latter a collaboration with rapper ASAP Rocky), stylistically, are still very much in the Girl On Fire vein — ʽIn Commonʼ is an attempt at creating a robotic-digital equivalent of a Latin groove, with stupid bubbly keyboards and a limp beat (gotta feed that robot on something more calorific!), and ʽBlended Familyʼ is a fairly stereotypical love ballad with a beat and a predictable rap interlude. This is only too indicative of the general half-assed nature of the record: apparently, Alicia's «rougher» material must have been deemed too controversial (!) and non-commercial (!) for her established sector of the market. So just skip the singles and go straight to something like ʽIllusion Of Blissʼ, a dark sinner-soul, Ray Charles-inspired, confession of an imaginary drug addict for the decent stuff; or, failing that, at least go for her totally stripped-down, acoustic guitar-based, performance on ʽKill Your Mamaʼ (reminiscent of Beyoncé's work on ʽDaddy Lessonsʼ — again, though, where Beyoncé's odd excursion into country is ambiguous and provoking, Alicia's song is merely a folksified traditional plea for universal salvation).
Bottomline is: when compared against the obvious outside competition, Here does not stand much of a chance — but when compared against Keys' own pedigree, it is probably her second strongest album on the whole since The Diary, an impressive comeback after more than ten years of utter blandness; and from a technical standpoint, it is arguably her finest album ever, and if we have Beyoncé to thank for that, well, thank you Beyoncé. Perhaps this is not so much of a great news piece for Alicia herself as it is a nice symbol of the spread of a healthy tendency in modern day black music — when even second-to-third-rate artists like Alicia can pull themselves together for a record of this quality, what does that say about first rate artists? Then again, healthy musical tendencies, like everything healthy, tend to come and go, so enjoy it while it lasts: for all we know, next season might bring on some vicious catastrophe of taste, and we'll be stuck with remembering Here as the last good album in the great Afro-American tradition. In the meantime, here's a modest thumbs up to freeze this moment in time.