Choosing the album of the year wasn’t an easy task. Based purely on performance and production, the accolade would have gone to Radiohead for A Moon Shaped Pool. But music is about more than the aesthetic culmination of a sound. Alicia Key’s Here the proves this rule. It isn’t the product of years of evolution and refinement, it’s a new world that serves as an introduction to the real Alicia.
Before things slow down on the sixth track, “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”, there is a sense of stepping into Alicia’s authentic world, perhaps for the first time. The opening words demand attention (“I’m the dramatic static before the song begins / I’m the erratic energy that gets in your skin”) to “The Gospel”, a song that rolls along with an urban message and a street sound. It acts as a precursor to the entire album. The sweet piano, radio-friendly vibes are gone.
That’s not to say she has downplayed her natural talent on the keys, it’s now a tool used to give drama in the right places and emphasis like no other instrument can muster. Her vocal style has duly been adapted. In parts, like the album, it is raw. The openness, the imperfection, hearing the breath as she pushes messages into the microphone, or it break as she sings “Hallelujah”, surpass a polished mainstream offering.
With this record, she has finally given voice to her opinions, her character. “Blended Love” clearly comes from experience, talking about stepchildren and family. “Holy War” is a semi-political statement, reflecting these uncertain times. “Girl Can’t Be Herself” is the record that soundtracks her online push for women to go without make-up, be natural.
Cynics will point out it’s easy for one of the world’s most beautiful women to adopt the natural look, but they’d be missing the point and highlighting why Alicia has been championing the idea.
It should be noted there was nothing wrong with her previous offerings. The majority of Alicia Keys albums will stand the test of time. This one just redefines her while capturing the world now. “Kill Your Mama” isn’t a song that could have worked on a softer, commercial album.
Periodically the album cuts away to interludes, these add to the personalised structure. Without making this the whitest review ever of Here, it also makes one think back to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. That debut album perfectly got the idea of the artist and her sound over. It changed a genre in the process.
Here incorporates R&B, hip-hop, and soul traits into a wrapper of Alicia’s design. It’s an album that transcends her previous works and acts as a reboot for what’s to follow.
The clue was on the album cover. Quite regularly she is seen in a headwrap on social media, on the cover her natural curly locks spring to life unhindered. She’s Here. No longer the young piano playing virtuoso that’s falling or a girl on fire, but a woman with a strong voice and opinions to deliver.
The next time she provides them can’t come soon enough.