By Hayden Wright
What does it mean that Alicia Keys is “here?” To the average observer, Keys has been here since 2001’s Songs In A Minor earned her five GRAMMY Awards and unrivaled stature for a 20-year-old debut artist. The singer-songwriter unpacks that question on her new album of the same title: Fifteen years into her multiplatinum career, the Manhattan native finally feels ready to integrate the parts. The twentysomething prodigy with soul, wisdom and talent beyond her years has matured into an artist whose integrity requires no asterisk about youth or inexperience.
“I’ve always been inspired by Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, but I didn’t quite know how to do that in the beginning,” she told Rolling Stone yesterday. “I didn’t understand how to put it into words, or I just didn’t have access to the emotion or the confidence or the clarity or the ballsiness. The difference is time.”
Here are the best songs on Alicia Keys’ Here:
- “The Gospel” is a borderline rap track with protest song roots: Imagine blending Jay Z with Janis Joplin. Hova’s influence on Keys’ career is revealed through her clear, crisp enunciations during the speak-sung first verse: “If you ain’t in the battle, how you gon’ win the fight?” she wonders aloud as she rallies her audience to political action.
- “Where Do We Begin Now” showcases Keys’ extraordinary piano skills—a longtime calling card from “If I Ain’t Got You” to her solo version of “Empire State of Mind.” On this track, the complex piano arrangement fits neatly into a modern, urban soundscape with sweet vocals that don’t pull focus.
- “Girl Can’t Be Herself” sounds like it might’ve made the shortlist for Beyonce’s Lemonade, but the great thing about Alicia Keys is that she’s always been in a game with herself. On one of the album’s more upbeat tracks, Keys laments the state of women in society with nods to folk and reggae. The message is clear: Women should unburden themselves of social pressures about appearance and self-worth.
- “Pawn it All” is a fierce, gospel-inflected anthem that beckons to listeners to sing along. The chorus keeps a familiar tradition of black spirituals while the verses give punchy immediacy to themes like freedom, perseverance and overcoming adversity. “Pawn it All” also features Keys’ best vocals on the album.
- “Holy War” is the hopeful note Here needed to end with, a bright and spare acoustic guitar track with a message for posterity: “Oh maybe we should love somebody/ Oh maybe we could care a little more/ So maybe we should love somebody /Instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.”