Written by Will Andrews
- Reviewed by Will Andrews -
ALICIA is a socially conscious, politically engaged seventh album from a renowned New York songstress, marking a significant return to form for the one and only Alicia Keys. Combining sultry vocals, poignant lyrics and polished production, Keys' 2020 LP represents her best work since 2003's iconic The Diary of Alicia Keys and one of the best R&B albums of the year.
Before I give my plaudits to this album, I must veer away and address a rather large elephant in this rather small East London maisonette. Why this album? And why now? This review, much like Alicia Keys’ record itself has been significantly overdue. Originally set for release at the start of the year, a small global pandemic resulted in ALICIA becoming delayed until September 18th 2020. Unlike Miss Keys, I cannot use the global pandemic as a reason for one’s tardiness, but rather a combination of university demands and writer’s block. Simply put, I did not know what to make of this album on first listen. By the time of its release, Keys had released seven singles and honestly few had struck any significant chords. First impressions then, like many album R&B albums from legends this year, were merely satisfactory with nothing substantial to note.
Over the past few months, however, I have found myself returning to this album more and more, denoting that my initial judgements on ALICIA were significantly premature. Undoubtedly a grower and not a shower, you may not be blown away upon first listen, but give this record time and you will come to appreciate this album for what it is: a warm, uplifting LP that provides some much-needed musical healing in 2020.
In a recent interview, Keys described this album as “genreless”, and although I don’t totally agree with the hyperbole of this description, it certainly goes a lot further than the looser experimentation of 2016's Here. This album see Keys effortlessly vocalize over a variety of beats and sounds, be that the funky, psychedelic production on ‘Time Machine’ or the slinky reggae influenced 'Wasted Energy', buoyed by a Diamond Platinumz feature. Many of the impressive, new sounds came courtesy of a contributing cast including legendary neo-soul queen Jill Scott, Philly rapper Tierra Whack and the three R and B kings, Miguel, Khalid and Sir. 'You save me' stands out in particular. A heart warming duet with Snoh Aalegra, the two blend so seamlessly on this track that it became hard to differentiate their voices, fusing together into this synthesis of sheer vocal perfection. Another notable feature shines through on the fantastic '3 Hour Drive', where Mercury 2017 prize winner Sampha joined Keys in lamenting a past lovers’ separation.
But despite an amazing supporting cast and the conquering of new sounds, Keys most impressive performances on the album are found when she returns to her bread and butter, soulful piano ballads. We are blessed with two perfect examples to finish the project: 'Perfect Way To Die' and 'Good Job'. As the celebrated Nina Simone once put it, “an artist’s job is to reflect the times” and I think Alicia Keys channels this very spirit with her powerful, timely ballads. Although I could explore the themes of this song and the obvious motives behind it (in particular policy brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement) I could never phrase it as poignantly as Keys herself whom wrote:
“I have felt called by music like I never have before, I have been following its lead. It has led me to the song “A Perfect Way to Die”. The song title is so powerful and heartbreaking because WE are heartbroken by so many who have died unjustly. Of course, there is NO perfect way to die. That phrase doesn’t even make sense. Just like it doesn’t make sense that there are so many innocent lives that should not have been taken from us due to the destructive culture of police violence. Sometimes I don’t have the words and music is the only thing that can speak. I hope this speaks to you.”
2020 has made a routine out of depicting the fallacies of celebrity culture. Whether through Gal Gadot and her showbiz pals offering a tone death 'Imagine' cover - telling grieving citizens to imagine if there was no heaven instead of actually doing something, or Kim Kardashian's "humbling" 40th birthday party in the midst of a global pandemic – people are tired of celebrity’s trying to portray themselves as benevolently generous deities to the common folk.
Alicia Keys successfully, and perhaps almost miraculously, avoids such condescending tropes with the albums finale “Good Job”. This piano ballad is dedicated to heroes in disguise, key workers, “the mothers, the fathers, the teachers that reach us” and other ordinary people just trying to get through their 9 – 5 shift. An anthem of gratitude that due to COVID-19 has taken on a profound resonance, this final track offers the kind of hope you can hold on to, but that can also hold us together. It makes a fitting finale, then, to a record that highlights precisely why, over the last twenty years, Alicia has continued to possess the Keys to the game.
- 7.7 -
'3 Hour Drive', 'You Save Me', 'Good Job'
Will Andrews is a 22 year old graduate from King’s College, London. He’s the most southern man to ever come out of Yorkshire and spends his time procrastinating listening to music rather than studying.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is an underground music and arts website created and co-edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
Do you make music? Send it to us via instagram and follow the account so we can contact you if we like what we hear. In the meantime, like us on facebook and subscribe to our mailing list below to be alerted every time a new post is published on the site.