“This album is so much about life, New York City, us as people, all the stories I saw growing up. It sounds like the New York that I know. It’s aggressive, it’s raw, it’s me being my most truthful…It is such powerful music. You are going to go crazy.”
Quietly DM’ing the track list to her fans on Twitter, Alicia Keys released ‘Here’ an album presented as an ode to her hometown as well as highlighting a spectrum of current issues – “I gotta speak the truth when I’m up in the booth”. Executive produced by her husband Kassem ‘Swiss Beatz’ Dean; both New York natives, ‘Here’ demonstrates Alicia’s highest peaks in a powerful collection of contemporary pop and soulful renditions. Keys enlists a less traditional classic R&B route going for a more eclectic fusion of sounds to heighten the power of her record with an intention to ignite some much needed impactful conversations.
‘Here’ follows the 2012 ‘Girl on Fire’ album and yet in some ways is not dissimilar to Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ with it’s composite structure of spoken word interludes that encapsulate thought and feelings together with stripped back acoustic ballads focusing on matters of the heart, mind and soul.
As the first single and final track on the album, ‘In Common’ saw in Keys’ summer with an anthem that pioneered into deep-rooted heavy bass at the cusps of contemporary pop. A record speaking to acknowledge our natural flaws, it’s theme of acceptance, come as you are, come freely, came embraced with Alicia’s own fresh natural make-up free look. Reassuringly delivered with a message etched on similar characteristics to that of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, Alicia began the project searching for that boldness to be open, to love, to be alright despite the daily struggles of today.
After ‘The Beginning’ there’s no hiding as Alicia begins with speaking the truth on a hard-hitting hip-hop laced joint, delivering an immensely powerful second track, ‘The Gospel’. Accompanied by a 22 minute visual of the same name, this is not just a girl on fire but a woman spitting fire. “How we ever gon’ live, If we ain’t gettin’ money how we feedin’ the kids?”
From there on, it’s on with ‘Pawn it All’ a track designed to motivate you with it’s anthemic charge igniting action and following with an interlude from former Black Panther Party chairwoman, ‘Elaine Brown’. ‘Kill Your Mama,’ is an acoustic guitar led protest song that builds an intimate connection between Alicia and her listeners. It forces you to face the reality of institutionalised racism but not be frightened to face your own individuality; genetic engineering and off course maternal love – “Is there any saving us?/ We’ve become so dangerous,” she asks. “Is there any changing us?/ Even for the sake of love?/ How you gonna kill your mama, when only mama’s gonna love you to the grave.”
On the upbeat, ‘She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv’ Alicia delivers an ode to self-love, taking us on a journey through the five boroughs of New York, finding queens from Queens to Africa (the motherland), going in search for the right one, queens from Somalia to Egypt and Brixton to Kingston. Elevated in simultaneous jazz and piano solos, the hip-hop percussion takes control as Alicia floats into ‘1 Luv’ singing: “All along I’ve ignored what I’ve always known / That the chair I’ve been sitting on is a throne.” Swiftly blending in the Nas sampled 1994 joint ‘One Love’, Alicia encourages and empowers women to not settle.
Here enters a dark and majestic percussion, gritty blues with Alicia’s raw vocals cascading through remarkable parallels to ‘A Woman’s Worth’ from her 2001 ‘Songs in A Minor,’ debut. ‘Illusion of Bliss’ explores the story of a young woman’s drug addiction who doesn’t want to fall victim to its rouse. Alicia’s croaked voice and bluesy spirit spikes a powerful rendition showing Keys at her best.
From mama and motherland to motherhood, Alicia adds a touch of modern family life, on ‘Blended Family (What You Do for Love),’ which also features the only other guest on the album, Harlemite A$AP Rocky. A well put together pop song that heightens the many difficulties of a blended family; speaking from personal growth Alicia recounts her experiences with her blended family. ‘Work On It,’ produced by the iconc Pharrell Williams aligns the Harlem renaissance-style vocal harmonies and scat-chanting under Alicia’s top line is about her husband, continuing with the relationship theme of the album.
‘Cocoa Butter (Cross & Pic Interlude)’ reveals in-studio chatter about stretch marks a comical interlude that takes an intriguing look at both male and female opinions on image insecurities. Alicia puts together a powerful display juxtaposing societies fixation and obsession with seeing women constantly beautified. “I’m so secure with insecurities / why is being unique such an impurity?” Personified on her album cover speaking volumes in her visual presentation; untamed Afro freckled face on a quest for a makeup free movement, Alicia attempts to create an image of your reflection – and she glows on the dancehall inspired cut ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’. Pondering that “maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem”, it’s a welcome contrast in relief to the highly contoured images cultivated for years amongst the image of women in the music industry.
Continuing into the very delicate and intensely thought provoking subject of sexuality – ‘Where Do We Begin Now,’ delivers a strong provocative narrative with a beautiful effect, reflecting on bonding romantically with another woman. Streams of harp inspired tones hush as Alicia almost whispers on the heartbeat induced rhythmic piano, demonstrating with honesty the allurement of and uncertainty with a relationship like this.
Cooking the two together, the political with the personal, Alicia closes with ‘Holy War’, speaking on the unimaginable things that take place during wars and how numb we as humanity have become to it. “What if sex was holy and war was obscene, And it wasn’t twisted,” It qualifies as a moment where Alicia embodies what she needed to be as an artist, “ready to be the Nina I was born to be. To be the Lennon I was born to be. To speak on what’s happening.”
Essentially ‘Here’ is a fierce depiction represented as a sonic gospel of our current times fuelled with oppression of African Americans. From the calm and warming ‘More Than We Know’ to the soulful rendition of ‘Hallelujah’, Alicia appears to be seeking redemption, as she spotlights many issues from the refugee epidemic in Syria to police brutality and the “school-to-prison pipeline” for young black men.
The whole album breeds a sense of joy and hope, giving space for healing to take place. This is Alicia’s most explicitly personal body of work, vocal about human injustices, vocal about self-love, self-image and empowerment. Raising many issues and leading with her unique empathic attributes, this is Alicia Keys shining a different musical light that we’ve not quite experienced before. Alicia unmasks the veil that’s been desperately covering the real issues that plague America and attacks them poignantly in a melodic yet risky way but one that’s worthy. It is a unified political awakening, that airs out her frustrations with grace.
The compositions by far exceed the generic hip-hop and R&B formats exploring different variations of sound albeit staying true to her core and paying homage to her city. Alicia Keys brings it back on ‘Here’, challenging every listener with the idea of change, of owning your truth and where you begin in your journey to being truly free.