In 2001 ‘Fallin’’ exploded Alicia Keys into the consciousness of anyone with ears stuck to their head. The single was taken from Keys’ debut record Songs in A Minor which went on to sell 12 million copies with the beautiful young ivory tinkler picking up no less than five Grammy Awards along the way. Her latest, most boldly expansive record Here is her sixth album proper, in truth since her meteoric rise at the turn of the century her commercial success has gradually declined. Like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder before her on Here Keys is unshackled from the burden of huge commercial success. In fact, you can hear the influence of Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On all over Here from the conversations spliced in between songs to the structurally loose nature of many of the tracks.
Lyrically, too, this record has a touch of the world weary wizened old sage. Tackling the issues of drug addiction, economic inequality, race, body shaming and beyond the harsh realities of life are laid out bare. Since ‘Fallin’’, Keys has been closely associated with the piano, it’s prominent on this record but in a very subtle way. ‘The Gospel’ a tenement tale which Keys raps on is hung around a couple of simple chords with some more elaborate playing further back in the mix. On ‘Pawn it All’ Keys drags gospel from the deltas of the south into the slums of New York, rolling all the way on a fat piano riff that evokes Ray Charles. Some songs like ‘Kill Mama’ and ‘Blended Family (What You Do for Love)’ are built around fairly rudimentary acoustic guitar parts used to great melodic effect.
There’s a sense of sex on this record. Keys doesn’t need to parade her crotch around like a Moore street vendor trying to shift a punnet of strawberries, it’s achieved through the songs and her voice, it’s realistic. On ‘Can’t be Herself’ she acknowledges the pressure to adhere to the mass market idea of beauty put on herself and women in general with the line ‘Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem’.
Collaboration plays a massive part in this album with Pharrell Williams, ASAP Rocky and Keys’ husband Swizz Beatz all involved to varying degrees. Pharrell submerges his oar on ‘Work On It’ leaving his stamp all over it. The stuttering choir is a particularly nice touch. The use of space is an important element on Here, allowing each song loosely meander without ever getting completely away from Keys’ control.
Alicia Keys has opened a wound with Here, it may be a little too raw for unit munching chart enthusiasts but it’s going to last. It is a complete, diverse, gripping body of work. Contemporary yet timeless, you’ll always go back to it. Insert on metaphorical shelf between Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis and Bobby Womack’s Bravest Man in the Universe.