Alicia Keys can at times feel like a force of nature. An advocate for social progress, her musicianship can move from jazz to neo-soul via hip-hop all within the same song, building up into unique modern soul catalogue.
Following 2020’s ‘Alicia’ – and her accompanying memoir – her new album could be her biggest, broadest, and more in-depth undertaking yet. ‘KEYS’ seems to present the songwriter in the abstract, refusing to hem in her creativity across two complimentary sides.
Whether it’s Originals and Unlocked, Saturday and Sunday, or Yin and Yang, Alicia Keys seemed to want to bring together opposites on this twin endeavour. ‘Plentiful’ moves from lush jazz keys to that hard-hitting Pusha T feature, and it seems to act as a mini-manifesto for what is to follow – ambitious, packed with information, and daring in its execution.
‘Best Of Me’ is a soulful early highlight, while ‘Love When You Call My Name’ is a simple, unadorned song of love. ‘Old Memories’ has a wistful side to it, while the Brandi Carlile aided ‘Paper Flowers’ is a reminder of Alicia Keys’ ability to stretch.
And stretch is exactly what she does on Unlocked, the project’s second side. Produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, it finds Alicia Keys sampling the opening half – titled Originals – and building once more. An intriguing idea, ‘KEYS’ doesn’t quite achieve the spirit of opposition the structure implies, yet it more than underlines Alicia Keys’ status as a pre-eminent modern American songwriter.
Opening once more with those notes of piano, ‘Only You’ is a sombre discourse on soulful introversion, yet the Swae Lee indebted ‘LALA’ leans on arena-level hip-hop. The Unlocked version of ‘Nat King Cole’ present a ghostly Lil Wayne feature, while this second version of ‘Daffodils’ is all sonic daring and distortion amid the metaphor of regeneration.
A huge undertaking, ‘KEYS’ seems to find the American artist both embodying and rebelling against her own archetypes. Literate and honest, it doesn’t always connect, yet with 90 minutes of music to explore it’s a project that demands time and patience to truly absorb. Eschewing definitions, Alicia Keys seems to spin the wheel once more – where she goes next is entirely up to her.
Words: Robin Murray
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