'ALICIA' | Alicia Keys & Friends Draw Thesis of her Influence on R&B's Past, Present & Future
Evan Dale // Sep 26, 2020
Amidst despair, Alicia Keys delivers. It’s been four years – four long, hard-fought years – since she released her last album, 2016’s HERE. It’s been nearly two decades since she released her debut collection, Songs In A Minor. And yet somehow, ALICIA – from its title to its sound to its thematic discourse – feels like her coming-of-age-tale, her penultimate thesis, and her passing of R&B’s torch all rolled into one. From the jump, the album bleeds of a bassline-driven, electro-funk nuance that delivers its listener to the dancefloor (even if dancefloors are still shutdown amidst pandemic law.) ALICIA’s entirety rides an indisputable vibe of the kind of raw romance and sensuality that has only ever properly existed in R&B music, leaving listeners scrambling for a dancefloor partner (if only in their minds.) Yet, through the funk, the love, and the lust, so many other stylistic explorations come to the surface. It’s a mosaic of a spin on the influences that have made Alicia Keys one of the most dynamic, influential forces on music since the new millennium began, while also being keenly aware of where music is heading in her still strong wake.
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ALICIA’s first comes on Wasted Energy by way of Tanzania where Diamond Platnumz builds an Eastern Afrobeat jam and delivers a closing verse of his own, churning a result that equally pulls Alicia out of her comfort zone (where she thrives), while also nodding to her awareness sur an African Cultural Renaissance that has changed hip-hop and Neo-Soul especially in the past few years. The second comes from Sampha – a keystone figure in the UK’s Neo-Soul scene through the last decade – who in 3 Hour Drive duets with Alicia Keys for the album’s most soulfully emotive exploration, simultaneously putting on display the instrumental nuance and raw emotion that attach themselves to the UK’s emergent signature. Tierra Whack joins for Me x 7 where her and Alicia work overtop a subtle, electronically derived beat to deliver a rap influenced anthem, displaying R&B & hip-hop’s eternally tethered lanes.
But where the album perhaps shines brightest is with Miguel. Both timeless legends of the R&B cloth, Alicia Keys and Miguel should have been collaborating for years and Show Me Love is stark proof that the two are still very much the creative, emotive forces that they’ve always been. Something about the simplicity in an acoustic beat allows the two to explore the vibrant, seemingly unending reach of their respective ranges, bringing to pause any listener’s attention, and holding it in the deep layers of their harmonic collaboration. Not to be understated, Show Me Love is a top-tier addition to each of their esteemed canons, bringing to life hope for the past, present, and future of R&B under their mutual influence.
And once that precedent has been set, Alicia Keys does it again. With Khalid – a figure who has quickly risen as one of R&B and pop’s most exciting young talents – So Done – like Show Me Love – is another acoustically driven duet that goes much further than exhibiting both artists fascinating genius at musical collaboration. Also akin to 3 Hour Drive, So Done is a harmonically layered work of balance and mutuality where both Alicia and Khalid – like Alicia and Sampha or Alicia and Miguel – fluidly join vocal force for a hit. But, it’s also a rare exploration these days that sees two of music’s most unique voices setting aside their star power for an intimate, dynamic collaboration that feels just as pulled from Motown influence as it does from the modern R&B scene.
Equally as emotively immersive – equally bright in its inclusion of another timeless R&B star on the rise – You Save Me, which pulls into the frame a name largely unparalleled in range or stature without mentioning Alicia’s own name, is perhaps ALICIA’s strongest torch-passing moment. In so many ways, Snoh Aalegra is a product of what it is that Alicia Keys has been building for two decades. A powerful R&B oriented vocalist with more range than just about anyone in music, Snoh Aalegra – like Alicia Keys – is the kind of artist that can bring audiences across music’s endless breadth to the immortality of soul music. And You Save Me – most dynamic in what its simple piano underlining offers two soulstresses with such unending register – is another keystone moment in both of their canons, and a fervent microcosm of the vocal strength on exhibition from start to end of ALICIA, as it’s been with every work from either Alicia Keys or Snoh Allegra.
In the opposite direction, Jill Scott, named for its accompaniment and for one of Alicia Keys’ foundational inspirations likewise tethers her timeless artistry to the lineage of Soul music’s past. Expectedly floating over a jazzy, experimental beat à la Scott’s golden poeticism, it again pulls Alicia Keys in a new direction, again seeing her succeed as a bold creative whose sound, sourced from some of the most unique voices through time and spawning more for the future, knows no boundaries.
Sure, ALICIA is an album custom fit with the kind of rockstar featuring lineup that can only really come at the hands of someone with the kind of hall-of-fame track record as Alicia Keys, but its direction and its genius – by its very name – all go back to Alicia Keys. Still playing that piano, still pulling those heartstrings, and still gleefully – and often, too, heartbrokenly – exploring her unapologetic range of stage-worthy emotion, vocalism, and prose, Alicia Keys is still evolving as an artist, though a master of the sound she has largely created for the majority of the other artists involved. And that explains the album’s range.
ALICIA is a thesis on the influences and the influence of Alicia Keys, stretching from R&B and Neo-Soul, to classic Soul, jazz, and funk, to pop and hip-hop, and all the way to Afrobeats. And yet, it never feels misguided or weak-footed. Instead, tethered by the boundlessness and the timelessness of Alicia Keys and her friends, who represent the past and present of music, ALICIA is an image taken of where music, at the hands of R&B and Alicia Keys specifically exists in 2020, and where she and it are headed moving forward.