The “Girl on Fire” burned bright once again on Nov. 4, the release date of Alicia Keys’ new album Here. Revitalizing Keys’s niche of R&B with gospel undertones and New York grit, Here encompasses Keys’s desire to recognize both her roots and the struggles afflicting society today.
Keys grew up on the west side of Manhattan. A proud mix of African, Scottish, Italian, and Irish heritages, she discovered at a young age the value of diversity that would prove essential to establishing her sound and message. Her natural inclination for music early on in her life culminated in wild success throughout the 2000s, with her release of several hit albums including but not limited to The Diary of Alicia Keys, As I Am, and Girl on Fire. In this time she also channeled her philanthropic drive into a prominent advocacy role in the HIV and AIDS crisis in Africa, creating the Black Ball which raises millions of dollars annually for the cause.
Despite such success and charity, Keys acknowledges her frustration with her own inhibitions and with the current social climate as a primary source of inspiration for Here. She notes that expectations and fear of judgment narrowed her sights before, but this kind of mentality can no longer persist in these times of oppression toward black life. Here embodies her conversion to a raw confrontation of reality as it is, accomplishing a sound that highlights her artistic and social boldness.
The album’s first single, “Blended Family (What You Do For Love),” was released Oct. 7 and portrays a modern ideal of familial love despite the depth surrounding family dynamics. The simplistic tone of three guitar chords is gradually paired with a strong drum pulse to create a layered, uplifting sound. A$AP Rocky joins in on the track with personal rap material, adding a grounded feel to the meaning of family roots and affection.
The other tracks released with Here follow the album’s trend of coalescing Keys’s classically soulful R&B voice with gospel and even jazz flairs. “Holy War” speaks to the indoctrination of division in society, both in “sexuality and skin,” through a simplistic yet strong vibration that allows Keys’s earnest emotion to shine. “Illusion of Bliss” advances this emotional depth in its tale of a 29-year-old addict. A jazz-infused, desperate intensity built through the use of cymbals and cop car sirens fosters a transition into a euphoric, depressing reflection paired with a lone piano.
Another standout track is “The Gospel,” which uses a powerful drum line to develop the vibration of a march, reflecting a call to acknowledge how strength is born out of rugged upbringings. Keys notes that, despite rough beginnings in “ghetto universities […] change is gonna come.” “More Than We Know” inspires boldness and boundary spanning through a gospel choir echo and vibrant drum beat enlivened by a novel buzz of everyday background voices, forming a feeling of community and unity.
Accompanying the main tracks of Here are five unique interludes titled “The Beginning,” “Elevate,” “You Glow,” “Cocoa Butter,” and “Elaine Brown.”“The Beginning” delivers a slam poetry-esque performance that builds around a once-repressed voice becoming liberated, “Elaine Brown” focuses on the, “sweat and tears,” of the “black mother,” and shows how children will honor the mothers who attempted to shield them from struggle once they achieve freedom.
Elaine Brown was an active member of the Black Panthers, the famous black nationalist group, which furthers the sense of black empowerment in Keys’s work. Conversely, “Elevate,” “You Glow,” and “Cocoa Butter” produce more light-hearted, conversational-type pieces that instill serious messages, such as a teacher explaining how, if she rubbed all her students’ faces with Vaseline, black and white alike, all would “glow.”
Here symbolizes Keys’s daring pursuit of a grander voice in the social issues of today. The clarity of Keys’s diverse vocal range is not lost on such a pursuit but instead enhances the raw sentiment of meticulously evoking lyrics and steady yet punching instrumental accompaniment. The album reflects a newly emboldened voice of defiance that cannot be silenced, but is instead here to stay.
Featured Image By RCA Records