Alicia Keys Demonstrates Optimism, Empathy and Elegance on ‘Alicia’

When Alicia Keys broke through with “Fallin’,” she instantly set herself apart from other artists filling the airwaves. The song was undeniably infectious, partly because it had already made its way into other songs, in various shapes. Keys has never minded this, always securing a broad appeal by marching down the most traveled path. As she makes her way past hordes of lackluster counterparts, she stands out as a proper musician who keeps her finger on the pulse. She generally escapes pretension, but is able to conjure an R&B and soul spirit that has atrophied over the years, releasing music that renders the sound with all its original robustness. Keys has remained consistent in her releases, but waited until her seventh album, “Alicia,” to go the self-titled route. Accordingly, the album might well be her most thoroughly realized statement yet. While less overtly politically charged than 2016’s “Here,” this release still conveys the spirit that informed that work, and streamlines it into optimistic, romantic expressions. There is a carefully curated roster of features, a considerable stylistic expansion and, of course, an effortlessly fluid and commanding vocal performance.

Swirling, cinematic strings start the album off with a warm sepia tone, and Keys muses with a confident whimsicality worlds away from the safe directness of “Songs In A Minor.” She runs through melodies with a bohemian, spoken word spontaneity, fleshing out the striking titular line, “Truth without love is a lie.” It’s the type of zinger to surely trigger either a surge of swooning sentimentality or a rolling of the eyes. At any rate, Keys sings with a conviction that supports her stance. The record settles into a groove on “Time Machine,” with sculpted dark noise framed in an instantaneous, minimal dance beat. Keys sings with an effortless cool and seasoned showmanship, with her increasingly impassioned, wispy utterances giving way to angelic falsetto cascades, and a particular enraptured ease to her soulful swagger. 

Keys sounds like someone who has attained a zenlike state, and her songs seem to exude from her without any struggle of affectation.” Authors of Forever” has a melody with faint echoes of the Bee Gees’ “More Than a Woman.” Keys bluntly professes, “We arе on born on our own / And we die on our own,” and simply reckons, “And we’rе here to make meanin’ / Of what happens in between.” It’s an elegant condensation of immense proportions, and Keys delivers it with all her usual cool, along with frolicsome steel drums and Auto-tune flourishes.”Wasted Energy” begins with haunting, fanciful vocal harmonies that sound thrillingly like “Medulla”-era Bjork. A beat drops, and the track fires off in an entirely different direction, with dub reggae stylings. Tanzanian singer Diamond Platinumz drops a unique verse in his native Swahili, cramming a surfeit of personality into just a few bars.

Keys dips into the most finger snapping, acoustic guitar strumming type of singer-songwriter fare on “Underdog,” co-written by Ed Sheeran, and turns it out with the maximum conceivable amount of pop polish. R&B and soul singers are generally prone to ostentatious, melismatic indulgences, and it’s confounding how exactly Keys manages to sound so sleek and modest, without seeming to compromise any passion. The main melody is hopelessly trite, but accordingly catchy, readymade and accessible. 

Keys ventures into a James Blake type of spacious minimalism on “3 Hour Drove,” featuring Sampha, a singer whose tone is coincidentally quite like Blake’s. He and Keys put on a duet that showcases their vocal skills, demonstrating a natural chemistry. At this point, the album takes on a certain unanticipated edge in its sonic spirit, and Keys lingers in this space for “Me x 7,” exploring the type of dim lit, hidden treasure grooves that Nicolas Jaar taps into. Unfortunately, lyrics like “I care too much about you / More than myself sometimes” are frustratingly hackneyed, and a quite pointless verse from rapper Tierra Whack cheapens the affair.

Another duet comes on “Show Me Love,” with Miguel joining Keys over a Spanish guitar laden track. Keys sings in airy, sinuous stretches, with some thrilling harmonies.”So Done,” featuring Khalid, reaches new emotional depths, with a vulnerable intimacy from Keys that sends chills. Khalid traces through the curves that she lays out, and the two sound wide-eyed and dreamy, asserting, “I’m livin’ the way that I want,” continuing in the spirit of “Authors of Forever.” On “Gramercy Park,” Keys sings a tune that almost approaches country fare in its sprightly turnaround. What would otherwise be a dull routine takes on plenty of character, with Keys’ deft melismatic command designing the mix.

“Love Looks Better” is a perfect pop song, an instant hit in the same way as “Fallin’.” Dark, droning piano and a mobilizing stomp lead the way, and Keys runs through proven hitmaking moves with a bewitching effortlessness, with a very Coldplay piano refrain, throwing in the ubiquitous “Oh Oh” chants, swelling and soaring in a chorus that hits harder than anything yet on the album. Keys is shamelessly bromidic with her love songs, and the case continues with “You Save Me,” featuring Snoh Aalegra, who sings in bold, charged gestures than Keys’ featherweight flourishes, and proves a collaborator of the highest ranks. 

Keys is open about her inspirations, and with her usual straightforwardness, she turns out a song called “Jill Scott.” What began as Keys merely imitating Scott’s singing turned into an actual collaboration with the eponymous artist. Over jazzy drums and funky soloing with an Afrofutist feel, Keys lets loose in her most la di da romanticism, while the real Jill Scott chimes in for a flash, and affirms the honor. Keys is one of too few popular artists in the greater R&B and soul worlds that preserves the richness of her musical heritage. Musicality has long taken a backseat to glossy, gimmicky production, and Keys is a link to an earlier generation of songwriters, ones who actually played their own instruments. Chord progressions used to be a bigger deal in even the most commercial music. While Keys has always kept up with sounds of the day, she can easily retreat into those of other eras, when she allows her piano playing to lead the way. On “Perfect Way to Die,” she plays with an elaborate theatricality that wouldn’t be out of place in the ‘70s. On the other hand, the lyrics are especially timely, written about a mother who lost her son to police brutality. The lyrics grow crushing, as Keys sings, “But I said, “Baby, don’t you close your eyes / ‘Cause this could be our final time. Yet, she expresses it in a way that comes across as resilient rather than lugubrious. It all winds down neatly on “Good Job,” continuing the ultimately unflinching optimism running through the album, reverberating in a final curtain call. By the end, Keys is singing with a gospel exuberance, reassuringly repeating, “You’re doin’ a good job.”

It’s generally a curious move for artists to release self-titled albums well past their debuts, as if to declare to the world that this time, they have finally discovered their true essence. All throughout the near hour-long running time of “Alicia,” there is an unmistakable tone of confidence. Keys’ lyrics are generally silly and brazenly banal, that they could only come from someone uniquely self-assured in her artistic instincts. This is consistent with everything on display. Keys sings like she has achieved peace, yet covers a phenomenal emotional range, with a sensitivity that her vocal skills allow her to fully express. She balances current and timeless sounds, as she always has, perhaps with never as much vitality as now. The songs range from bold, quirky minimalist excursions to shameless collages of collected clichés. Keys joins with features that reflect her artistry in novel ways. She wanders down sporadic sonic avenues, and still retains a core sound that elegantly bridges gaps, and demonstrates a rare balance of pop instincts and musical erudition. 

Alicia” releases Sept. 18 on Apple Music.