22 December 2021-
After releasing Alicia in 2020, soul superstar Alicia Keys is back this year with eighth studio album KEYS. A double album too, because the lady apparently likes making things in pairs...
2 years in, we are still very much experiencing the ripple effect of the Covid-19 pandemic over the music industry. Some artists were incredibly productive (see: Taylor Swift), others switched their release schedules (see: Weezer)… and then there is Alicia Keys. After releasing the 2020 highly personal LP Alicia, as well as publishing a memoir, on top of her now legendary no-make up policy, we thought that we had seen the most intimate parts of the artist’s worldview. Well, not quite: this where Covid comes in.
Like many artists — and people, for that matter — that forced break in Keys’ life rhythm caused her to rethink more things than simply learning to make bread or whatever it was people did way back when in 2020. No, instead of trying out the most earnest approach she could find musically (such as with Alicia) or departing from music altogether (with writing and such), she opted for an interesting path that not too many artists would dare take: she literally let the audience choose.
KEYS, her eighth album released a few days ago, is actually a double album designed to showcase two sides of the same coin — that coin being Alicia, of course: the “Original” side and the “Unlocked” side. If the key analogy was not entirely obvious here, what is less straightforward is that Keys leads to believe that her truest current artistic aspirations actually go beyond the stripped down, elegant new-soul stylings of the “Original” disc, but actually have her venture into more experimental beats, productions and styles that range from drum and bass influences all the way to contemporary trap elements. Which shouldn’t be entirely surprising, seeing as the “Unlocked” disc was largely produced by Mike Will Made It, one of contemporary hip hop’s most celebrated producers.
The result is interesting to say the least. While the first disc is less original than its name, it nevertheless features extremely well crafted tracks, starting with the remarkable opener that is “Plentiful”, its spotless piano intro and astutely placed Beanie Sigel sample. “Is It Insane”, meanwhile, is a beautiful nod to classic jazz divas, à la Billie Holliday or Ella Fitzgerald. “Nat King Cole” is a subtle mix of old and new with a soft harmonic structure, remarkably powerful vocals and well placed highly contemporary beats — courtesy of the aforementioned Mike Will Made It, who apparently was not satisfied with only working on one part of the project.
Then comes the “Unlocked” part. Mostly comprised of re-imaginings of the Originals you listened to first if you followed the track listing Spotify gave you (no more default shuffling, thanks to Adele), they provide an interesting take on what Miss Keys is interested in exploring sonically these days — or any day, really. What is most riveting about these musings (pun very much intended) is actually their range: you will hear electronic, new soul, drum and bass, hip hop, trap and many more influences over here. While “Only You” is almost a dance track, the unlocked version of “Nat King Cole” is essentially a trip hop tune (which is a great thing, to be clear) and “Old Memories” now tends to hint at 2Pac’s “Changes” (and its underlying Bruce Hornsby sample), albeit with a more subdued approach. Meanwhile, songs that are exclusively on the Unlocked side, such as lead single “Lala” and “Come For Me”, bring the trap touch that shows Miss Keys does indeed listen to the radio.
All in all, while KEYS is an inherently less cohesive set than its predecessors, it is precisely its diversity that is worth the listener’s time. And time he will need: clocking in at 1 hour and 33 minutes, it blows past the Donda‘s of this world… fine by us!