Jealous of Alicia Keys? You should be

Alicia Keys plays on your unconscious mind. It’s an extreme step for someone who performed the Grammys for four years in a row without ever releasing a full album. But she embraced the feedback…

Jealous of Alicia Keys? You should be

Alicia Keys plays on your unconscious mind. It’s an extreme step for someone who performed the Grammys for four years in a row without ever releasing a full album. But she embraced the feedback all the same, and made music that addressed the groundswell of publicised frustrations that had come from these too-good-to-be-true days of R&B.

Her eponymous debut album may have been centered around her unmistakably R&B vocals, but it was accompanied by snappy beats, funky bass lines and big, spacey synth riffs to make all this talk of conscious music feel like something much bigger than… well, anything. The lyrics were expansive and distressing, mentioning names like Freddie Gray and Martin Luther King Jr with equal force, and the instrumentation mixed more pop than R&B. It was difficult to compartmentalise it, and for some, it challenged their very perceptions of what a R&B song should sound like. It was hard to unpack: do people want a bigger sound, or is that, like Keys, music really just about the voice, and that’s that?

So for her second record, Songs in A Minor (2002), Keys turned the microphone back on, even though some people still didn’t dig it. She split the album’s 23 songs into nine groups: Endless Love, Going in Circles, Down, But Not For Long, No Regrets, My Life, Hurry Up, Wonder Woman, Keep Me In Mind, and Use Somebody. The album would later go on to create some of her most memorable moments, from No Regrets’ raging bitching, to Hurry Up’s rapping, to Wonder Woman’s love connection.

Alicia Keys on stage, 2003. Photograph: Getty Images

Keys has never been afraid to work through the messes we’re in, and you have to admire her seemingly unflappable resilience to hold it all together. She’s only gone up from there: The Diary of Alicia Keys (2007), an intricate concept album that took eight years to complete and includes a sprawling, eight-track tracklist. The Mama Said EP in 2012 saw her focus less on the fight and more on letting love down gentle. By 2014 Keys had a baby on the way, so Shrink (2015) was a “happily untroubled stay-at-home mom,” an album that saw her return to the reckless hip-hop she honed in her popier R&B days. With her stripped-down Wonder Woman she admitted that she, herself, knew nothing.

2014: Me & My Baby. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex

Or maybe she didn’t. Keys wasn’t afraid to write from the perspective of either child or parent, and in perhaps the song with the most power and sincerity, and her most empowering, her latest, she found a way to get back in there. On a post-baby trip to Greece, she wrote: “I was gone, kinda magical, barely thinking. We had a baby and I know I was right behind you, and I knew I was here, you got me.” She puts the starkest of honesty into the lines that she should have been saying all along, on an album that all but prods you to get mad. It’s seemingly straightforward, but layered with so much thoughtfulness it’s crazy to even consider it as a punchline at this point.

After a period of stasis and refocusing her career, Keys finally released her fifth album in December 2016. Before giving birth to son Egypt in 2012, she promised fans that she would be back with a new album within a year, and if the subtitle on the first single is to be believed, she was clearly told to “Step Out On Fire” and she does just that. It’s a sound she hasn’t done since she was 15, and it’s given her a chance to really dig into the songs, dig into some of the issues she’s been talking about, and rewire them to work in the present without feeling like they’re struggling to fit themselves into history. This album might

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