Alicia Keys‘ seventh album was originally due in March, but then pandemic panic intervened. At the time, the slick pop-R&B single ‘Underdog’ was climbing the charts to become her biggest hit since 2012’s ‘Girl On Fire’, so the six-month push-back probably won’t have boosted its commercial fortunes. But creatively, the delay makes sense, because this album’s combination of positivity, empathy and self-knowledge feels pretty enriching right now.
Keys has described the album as “genreless” and while that’s not technically true, you can definitely see where she’s coming from. As ‘ALICIA’’ glides from throwback funk (‘Time Machine’) to dewy reggae (‘Wasted Energy’), and languid R&B (‘Show Me Love’) to folky soul (‘Gramercy Park’), there’s a sense that Keys cares more about mood here than any specific sound. This is an album that shimmers with warmth and cautious optimism from start to finish. “We’re all in this boat forever, and we’re sailing towards the future and it’s alright,” Keys sings on ‘Authors Of Forever’, a balmy gem with a hint of ’80s Lionel Richie to it.
Combined with a lack of uptempo cuts – let’s be honest, never Keys’ strongest suit anyway – this consistent mood gives the album an impressive sense of cohesion. Only ‘Love Looks Better’, a bombastic pop-soul ballad produced by Adele and Beyoncé collaborator Ryan Tedder, comes close to sticking out. Keys showed a more socially conscious side on her last album, 2016’s ‘Here’, and she continues to engage politically on ‘ALICIA’. Co-written with Ed Sheeran, ‘Underdog’ contains an unpretentious and affecting shout-out to “young teachers” and “student doctors” as well as “single mothers waiting on a check to come”.
More powerful still is ‘Perfect Way To Die’, a timely ballad written from the perspective of a grieving mother whose son has been gunned down by cops. When Keys sings, “just another one gone / And they tell her to move on,” it’s a casually damning condemnation of her country’s inadequate response to police brutality.
The album ends earnestly with ‘Good Job’, a piano ballad dedicated to “the mothers, the fathers, the teachers that reach us” and other ordinary people just trying to get through the day. It could have come off trite and condescending from a woman who sold 16 million copies of her debut album ‘Songs In A Minor’ when she was just 20 years old, but somehow it doesn’t. Like most of ‘ALICIA’, it’s warm, well-meaning and primed to provide some much-needed musical healing.