The melancholy segue on 2001’s Songs In A Minor between “Never Felt This Way”, the earnest Brian McKnight cover acting as an interlude, and “Butterflyz”, the first composition ever written by then fourteen-year-old Alicia Keys (“Joy is what you bring/I wanna give you everything”) is a moment suspended in time. For me, at least, this flawless passage between two cuts holds tender secrets eternal. Their transition is an enduring slice of my neural nostalgia, also known as music from our younger years, controlling disproportionate, lasting power over current emotions.
Alicia Keys’ debut album was recorded and released as the artist, and peers like myself—gifted daughters of struggling single mothers, city girls before the term meant something else—trickily shifted from adolescence into womanhood. Classically inspired but nascent in texture, the celebrated masterpiece came at the right time (pun intended) for my blossoming, a parallel musical accompaniment to growing pains of love, loss and the in-between.
Flashing back decades ago to when Keys emerged a young virtuoso with calm confidence and street-derived suspicion shining through almond-shaped eyes, when R&B was imbued with hip-hop but retained its essence, I recall the effect a disruptive artist of her kind can have on a generation. Today a multi-award-winning musician, activist and philanthropist who, according to last year’s memoir More Myself, knew “in my gut since I was four,” she would make a career of singing and did just that.
Fast forward to the end of 2021, and Keys is still serving up that chicken soup, albeit for souls housed in more time-served bodies. KEYS is her eighth album, a double-LP. It’s an ambitious collection of 26 songs sectioned into Originals and Unlocked. Originals contains 14 classic piano-driven tracks produced by Keys, with input from husband and creative partner Swizz Beatz. Unlocked comes courtesy of a sonic alliance with Mike WiLL Made-It, who remixes most numbers and offers up a few fresh tunes.
Press play on the album’s intro “Plentiful”, and you’re transported back to Alicia Augello Cook, the dexterous child taught piano by Margaret Pine, her teacher from six years old until she graduated high school and became a major label artist. “Plentiful” is a melodic origin story, a reminder that this prodigy’s keys are… well, the key to her luminosity. A well-placed Pusha T verse adds to the trajectory of the artist’s day-one rap sensitivities: “Still got it cheaper though, scales like a Libra, yo/Playing on these keys like Alicia, that’s a secret though”.
“Skydive”, like the majority of tracks on Originals, captures romantic and mellow vibes shared between Keys and Beatz. But make no doubt about it: the lion’s share of production here is by Keys, severely underrated for her technical talent since getting her professional start. However, it doesn’t hurt to visualise Alicia and Kaseem, kindred soul New Yorkers who have both tasted global success, vibing in the studio or testing out this material as they sip red wine inside their futuristic California mansion.
Then there’s “Best Of Me”, co-written by Raphael Saadiq and featuring a silky sample of Sade’s 1993 single “Cherish The Day”. Other standouts include the sentimental “Old Memories”, with a just-released video forming part of the KEYS short film due for release this week, and the stripped-down “Paper Flowers” featuring acoustic maestro Brandi Carlile.
Unlocked brings with it Mike WiLL Made-It’s sped-up and experimental touch to mixed results. The ambient and tight “Come For Me” with Khalid and Lucky Daye sees Keys helm the chorus with the more present-day crooners holding down verse duty. “Daffodils” loses most of its folksy aura to become a somewhat bewildering number, and “Dead End Road” isn’t so much remixed as it is slightly reimagined. But the album’s buzz single “LALA” is prominent here, with Mike WiLL’s protegé Swae Lee expertly floating on the provocative beat. Unlocked ultimately calls to mind Adele’s viral quip that if “everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making music for my generation?” and while Keys no doubt swerves slightly into a more youthful lane here, she never loses control.
The iconic works of the late Maya Angelou weave a rousing thread throughout Alicia Keys’ métier. From her reflective “Caged Bird” tribute on Songs In A Minor to reciting the Pulitzer Prize-winning iconoclast’s “Still I Rise” at the 2017 Women’s March. One of Angelou’s poems starts, “When I passed 40, I dropped pretence.” On the eve of her fortieth birthday, during a 2019 appearance on Red Table Talk, Keys revealed a lifetime spent questioning her self-worth. In a recent interview promoting KEYS, the 41-year-old blissfully spoke of an evolved perspective. “I’m not afraid of joy. I’m not afraid of happiness anymore. I’m not holding that. I’m not blocking my blessings. Period.”