When Alicia Keys made her debut nearly 20 years ago, the primary engine of her music was musicianship itself — her ability to passionately yet effortlessly elide the distance between classicism and modernity, entwining genres and eras in her playing, singing, and writing. Over the years, as we’ve gotten to know her, the focus has shifted toward her own deeply-felt hopes, frustrations, and desires. She says her seventh album is her most authentic and personal to date, but for many listeners, its openness will be familiar.
The album’s first song, “Truth Without Love,” is a stormy, lyrically hard-nosed song about the emptiness of any life, love, or art that doesn’t try to connect to a broader, deeper sense of empathy. “Truth without love is just a lie,” she sings. Such a sentiment fits an artist who has always been an approachable star, imbuing her public persona with a casual warmth and laid-back gravitas, whether she’s making records or hosting awards shows.
Alicia is one of her most musically engaging LPs, with production from Mark Ronson, Sampha, Tricky Stewart, and her husband, Swizz Beatz, among other reliable hands. Alicia moves easily between moods and styles, from the disco throwback “Time Machine,” to “Me X 7” (a bit of moody R&B ache with Tierra Whack), to the slinky reggae of “Wasted Energy,” with Tanzanian singer Diamond Platinumz.
Keys balances personal pleas with larger aspirational notes: On “I’m Done” she duets with Khalid, singing, “I’m done fighting myself, going through hell/I’m living the way that I want,” matching his mumble-croon as if awakening from a long slumber to get out there and seize life. “Gramercy Park” combines folk, soul, and gospel as she meditates on her efforts to meet the expectations of others.
The songs that connect with larger issues are predictably down-to-earth. She pays tribute to artistic bonds on “Jill Scott,” honoring the neo-soul singer as well as featuring her on the track. On the uplifting “Underdog,” she praises teachers and “student doctors,” but also “hustlers trading at the bus stop” and “single mothers waiting on a check to come,” linking the struggles of the too-often-unseen poor to a broader coalition of common folk and calling on all of us, over a lifting melody, to “rise up.” Not many artists could make a song called “Authors of Forever” come off as unpretentious as Keys does, singing “we’re all in this boat together and we’re sailing towards the future” over a light R&B glisten. The powerfully sung “Perfect Way To Die” offers a Black Lives Matter protest ballad in vividly personal terms.
Keys’ grounding piano anthems remain her calling card, and she ends the album with a strong one. “Good Job” is a pick-me-up to heroes in disguise, keeping their spirit intact during hard times: “Six in the morning/As soon as you walk through that door/Everyone needs you again”…“All day on your feet/Keep that energy, I know.” It’s an extremely moving moment, an everyday-people anthem delivered with a genuine sense of concern, especially when she adds wisely, “I don’t know if this helps.” Generosity tempered with humility is a rare and welcome look. It takes knowledge of self, care for others, truth through a lens of love, to get it right.