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Album: Alicia Keys - Alicia | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Alicia Keys - Alicia

Album: Alicia Keys - Alicia

A confident return from the megastar polymath, but does it hint at something more?

Alicia Keys is a puzzling mixture. On the one hand she’s the hyper-achieving, multi-platinum, 752-Grammy-winning America’s sweetheart, all dimply smiles, positive-thinking ultra sincerity and the kind of showbiz over-emoting and singing-technique-as-competitive-sport so beloved of talent show contestants. On the other, she’s an undeniably interesting artist on multiple levels.

Solo and with her husband Swizz Beats she’s a skilled and prolific songwriter and producer for others as well as herself: the pair’s work on Whitney Houston’s “Million Dollar Bill” alone is premier league material. And she’s been a vocally and lucidly political artist and advocate for not just minority rights but making the realities of black lives visible from the very outset: her 2002 vocal and production (sampling Fela Kuti, no less) on Nas’s “Warrior Song” are extraordinary, for example.

All of that is here on her seventh album. Early on in the record there are a couple of absolutely phenomenal tracks. The single “Time Machine” is a heavy disco-funk stomp, where Keys’s multi-octave range is put to fantastic use harmonising with herself, and dirty synth basslines and sitars are treated to all sorts of trippy effects. “Wasted Energy” is equally weighty dub reggae, produced by South Londoner P2J with a sample of Red Rat’s dancehall classic “Tight Up Skirts” and a guest vocal from Tanaznian star Diamond Platnumz; Keys’s vocal is sultry throughout this, never going into showbiz mode.

But between these two is sandwiched “Authors of Forever”. It’s not a bad track as such, but it is showbiz as everliving heck: every line is a “whoever you are is alright” positive thinking homily, and Keys’s voice never stops flicking from vibratos to catches, trills to emphatic inhalations, which – standard pop technique though it all is – is frankly exhausting. None of the rest of the album goes quite as far in either direction: most of it is downtempo and pleasingly subtle, with guest spots from Khalid, Tierra Whack, Sampha and particularly Jill Scott (on another album highlight, the woozily funky... “Jill Scott”) all woven in tidily.

The high emoting on “Perfect Way to Die” is taken away from musical theatre by fearsomely direct lyrics on police violence, street life and protest – but you’ll need heavy tolerance for vocal tics and extreme positivity to get through the piano ballad closer “Good Job”. All told, it’s a fine album which balances hyper mainstream appeal with some very interesting diversions, but it raises the nagging question of what a Keys album where she drops the showbiz and kicks out the jams the whole way through would sound like.


Listen to "Time Machine":

The high emoting on “Perfect Way to Die” is taken away from musical theatre by fearsomely direct lyrics on police violence, street life and protest


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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