Alicia Keys Explores the Duality of ‘Keys’ With Originals and Remixes
As an artist who has always been well-versed in soul and R&B traditions and also kept her finger on the pulse of their contemporary forms, Alicia Keys has released what seems like an overdue realization with new double album, “Keys.” One set of songs, titled “Originals,” showcases her songwriting craft, as she delves deeper into the jazzier side of her sound and builds on a rich heritage of soul. The other, “Unlocked,” finds her sampling herself, to create a set of remixes that cover a wide stylistic range, and throws in a few original tracks for good measure. The songs display all the characteristics that define her, painting a portrait of the artistic entity that is Alicia “Keys,” and goes beyond, using those attributes to unlock unprecedented aspects.
Opener “Plentiful” finds Keys living up to her name, beginning with an intricate solo piano passage. She demonstrates her finger gymnastics for 45 seconds, after which point she is content to loop two chords and be done with it. A boom bap beat drops, courtesy of Keys and her husband, prolific hip-hop producer Swizz Beats. Pusha T grabs the mic and, in a flash, we’re in distinctly East Coast throwback territory. Keys enters with jazzy phrasing and general bohemian quality that echoes the likes of Amel Larrieux. “Skydive” follows suit with a sleek, neo soul sound. Keys’ lyrics are often relatively throwaway fare, like her musings here about “if we could fly,” but in this case, the gliding weightlessness of her voice brings the words to life while a crisp, Questlove-style groove grounds the track in a compact package. The Unlocked version veers closer to disco grounding, with horn flourishes, and the song becomes more of a festive jam. The “Originals” version of single “Best of Me” continues in this vein, breezy and welcoming, while the “Unlocked” version just subtly unscrews the ends, moving it slightly left field.
“Dead End Road” stands out for how uncannily Keys is able to faithfully recreate classic R&B and soul sounds. While her music has always nodded to long-standing traditions, there have been few instances that were as designedly retro as this. “Old Memories” is another nostalgic number, appropriate for its title, in which Keys sings over the waltz template on which so many ‘60s soul songs were built. “Is It Insane” begins with a vinyl crackle, and captures Keys especially raw and immediate, with her breaths, swells, subtle fluctuations of voice all up front, with just a standard rhythm section anchoring and embellishing them. There is a climactic moment when her singing could reasonably be described as crying.
The throwback tracks are interspersed with plenty of contemporary fare. “Billions” has one of the album’s most infectious hooks, while little touches like a glitched breath from Keys in an otherwise organic backdrop make for an exhilarating listen. “Come For Me” pairs Keys with Khalid and Lucky Daye. The three singers sift in and out through filters over a beat that recalls certain James Blake productions. Khalid sounds somehow more impactful than usual, while Daye hovers in an impressive blur of vibrato. “Love When You Call My Name” is a brighter track, with the live band excesses of early ‘70s soul that embraced rock instrumentation. The “Unlocked” version simply replaces a faint kick drum pulse with abundant, dynamic drums that are dancey, but clearly organic. “Only You,” another soul jam that gives way to guitar solos with gospel passion, gets more of an overhaul in “Unlocked.” It’s turned into house, well outside the hip-hop and R&B sphere that has always generally shaped Keys’ aesthetic. Key’s piano is sliced and sampled all over. As the light breezy number builds, the vocal and piano samples multiply and vary until we end up in a thrilling, transformed space.
There are weaker moments such as “Like Water,” which starts off with plenty of promise, but somehow ends up an ill-advised adaptation of R&B histrionics to Disney musical fare. There are some entirely new directions teased on the album. “Daffodils” is worlds away from the usual R&B and soul space, with birdsong, synths, open guitars, and at moments recalling the likes of Sharon Van Etten. “Nat King Cole” is dark and spritely, showing a provocateur, side of Keys, and bearing distinct echoes of Portishead. Lil Wayne drops a verse on the Unlocked version, bringing it further out yet. “Paper Flowers” pairs Keys with Brandi Carlile in a charged, dramatic number that showcases each singer’s expressive capacity and blends their widely divergent approaches in a surreal collision of worlds.
When Alicia Keys first broke through, she stood out in numerous ways from her peers in the greater R&B and soul space. For one, there was a consensus that she came across as more of a “proper musician.” A distinction of this type begs to be taken with some irony, and indeed, there were aspects of Key’s initial persona that could make a case. Did she title her debut album “Songs In A Minor” to fit the image? Does the fact that only one song was actually in A Minor all but prove she was just having a laugh? Whatever was the case, Keys became more confident in her skin over the years – even literally, at one point making a publicized decision to stop wearing makeup. She found her last album, 2020’s “Alicia,” a pure enough personal artistic statement to title it with her own name. But it’s her other name, “Keys.” that better represents the artist at work. Like her music, it’s a creation of her own. The forging of a creative identity is a cumulative process, with distinctions emerging from an expanding oeuvre until creations take shape that are not merely derivative, but actually original. On the latest album, Keys revives classic sounds, takes stylistic detours, and turns out a colorful set of songs that are then “unlocked,” and spun into further genre-hopping novelties. Throughout all of this, Keys’ presence is distinctive enough to tie the affair together.
“Keys” releases Dec. 10 on Apple Music.