Alicia Keys, “Alicia” (RCA)
Alicia Keys has plenty of kindly, uplifting advice on her seventh studio album. “Once you free your mind/ There is beauty in everything,” she sings in “Time Machine.” In “Authors of Forever,” she counsels, “We’re all in this boat together/ And we’re sailing towards the future/ and it’s all right.” She dedicates two songs, “Underdog” and “Good Job,” to hardworking everyday people, closing the album with lyrics that clearly apply to front-line workers in the pandemic: “The world needs you now/ Know that you matter.”
The album also reveals misgivings, recriminations and regrets alongside Keys’ undiminished musicality. “Alicia” arrives in the wake of her memoir, “More Myself,” where she describes herself as an artist whose determination to make her own way has meant overcoming her instinct to please others. Aspiration, self-esteem and strength have been central messages for Keys.
Her previous album, “Here,” was pointedly topical, addressing poverty, addiction, sexuality and environmental destruction with her rawest music, stretching toward hip-hop and jazz and putting grit in her voice. She stays topical on “Alicia” with “Perfect Way to Die,” defying its chamber-music arrangement with vocals that rise to tearful peaks as she sings about the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland.
Keys reclaims most of her usual composure on “Alicia,” but it’s often tinged with ambivalence, even in love songs. The music, largely produced by Keys with an ever-changing assortment of songwriters and producers, often hollows itself out around her, opening deep bass chasms or surrounding sparse instrumentation with echoey voids.
She has happier love songs, like “Show Me Love,” a teasing, sinuous duet with Miguel. But she also grapples with other people’s expectations in “So Done,” a duet with Khalid, about leaving behind “fighting myself, going to hell” to be “living the way that I want.” Keys’ extensive musical catalog shows far less compromise than her recollection suggests. She’s welcoming, compassionate, and open to ideas. But she’s nobody’s underling.
JON PARELES, New York Times
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