Motivated by the social turmoil and political upheaval of 2016 America, Alicia Keys’ latest album, ‘Here’, is an attempt, according to the accompanying press release, to “open up a dialogue around sensitive issues that aren’t often spoken about”; “a response to the world we live in today”.
Her first record in four years, ‘Here’ packs 18 songs into just over 50 minutes of playing time and certainly feels like an attempt to open up a dialogue surrounding our increasingly reactionary and segregated world. The album begins promisingly with the orchestral sweep and emotive build of opener ‘Gospel’ as Keys’ raw vocal delivery and anthemic chorus echoes Common’s early work. The Adele and Emeli Sandé co-written ‘Kill Your Mama’ is Keys’ folk hero moment, her voice unadorned over a strumming acoustic guitar, while the gospel organ swells of ‘Illusion of Bliss’ are a welcome evocation of soul music’s emotional power. The record reaches maximum appeal in the single ‘Blended Family’, which is a return to the boom-bap production and infectious melodies that have served Keys so well during the course of her last five albums.
It is only in ‘She Don’t Really Care/1 Luv’, though, that ‘Here’ lives up to its promise of an authentic expression of Keys’ musical and personal experiences. The track samples Nas’ seminal ‘One Love’ from his debut, ‘Illmatic’, which itself samples the jazz record ‘Smilin’ Billy Suite Part II’ by The Heath Brothers. This subtle production choice not only displays the expansive potential of sampling as an art form but in its accretion of sounds, it effects a sedimentation of the history of black music. We see the trajectory of influence all at once whilst empowering the listener through its lyric.
Notwithstanding this selection, however, the rest of ‘Here’ struggles to work together: ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’ moves into a jarring calypso rhythm, ‘Holy War’ overstates the folk theme of ‘Kill Your Mama’, ‘Where Do We Begin Now’ features Keys rap-singing over a minimal beat and final track ‘In Common’ feels like a last-minute push for a radio hit with its pop-Balearic, Jamie xx-influenced stylings.
A cynical analysis of ‘Here’ might state that since, outside of her philanthropic work, Keys has previously displayed little interest in conveying a political message through her music, the very transition into the political displayed in ‘Here’ is merely a symptom of the times. It is a market-orientated move that serves to satisfy an audience hungry not for the ‘Fallin’’-esque R&B love songs of the early 2000s, but now for a more profound exploration of our lives that perhaps cannot be displaced in the three minutes and 30 seconds of a song.
The issue with ‘Here’ is that while Keys’ intentions may be admirable, the result serves to enact the very paradox that she conveys in its lead single, ‘In Common’. She explained in an interview that the song’s message is that “we’re all living under a strain, dealing with division. The question is, are we gonna get to a place where we can love each other despite our differences?”; can we strive to have our differences in common and find strength in the universality of our humanity? And yet, Keys also exclaims: “Be who you are! Be an individual […] where you’re from!”, simultaneously putting our differences aside now in favour of our uniqueness, not commonality.
All of this translates into a record that feels at war with itself, both musically and motivationally. Tracks evade genre categorisation, interspersed with fragments of ‘interlude’, showcasing their individuality yet want of cohesion. ‘Here’ lacks the radical arrogance of Kanye, the lyrical dexterity of Kendrick, the aesthetic of Solange, and authority of A Tribe Called Quest. Keys fails to emulate these peers and instead only succeeds in certain apt production choices and the partial development of her earlier sound. She becomes yet another voice unable to deliver its message.
Words: Ammar Kalia
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