Four years after Girl on Fire, Alicia Keys returned with her sixth album Here, a departure from the romantic theme that dominated much of her earlier records. Social messages dominate the album, from its second track The Gospel where Keys rapped about life in an inner city ghetto (the track is devoid of a conventional chorus Keys’ songs are known for) to the 5-minute long Illusion of Bliss that covers the issue of drug addiction. Bliss ends with Keys’ signature moan as she pleads not to be a “fallen angel”.
Emeli Sande co-wrote Kill Your Mama, a song about the rape of Mother Nature. “Shame on us, on your sons and your daughters, dig all your gold and we poisoned all your waters”, Keys lamented. Girl Can’t Be Herself is the song of Keys’ controversial “no make-up” movement. “Who says I must conceal what I’m made of? Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem”, Keys complained, to the magnetic reggae beat. Easily one of the most summer-ready tracks on the otherwise dark album, Girl Can’t Be Herself shines as an anthem of woman empowerment in the age of photoshop and unrealistic mainstream expectations of beauty. She Don’t Really Care/1 Luv, with its slinky 90s beats, is the the song for the resurgence of black identity and racial consciousness in the pop culture during the era of Black Lives Matter.
Glimpses of Alicia Keys’ earlier sounds, married with Pharrell Williams’ slick production created Work on It, with its irresistible chorus that reminds listeners of No One, one of Keys’ most prolific hits. More Than We Know is an ode to self-empowerment, with Keys reminding the listeners that “there’s no fate that you can’t create”. The track is the closest it gets to a self-help midtempo ballad on the album; a forgettable one at that, considering the depth of other songs in the album. Blended Family is based on Keys’ experience of co-parenting her husband’s children in a blended household, it is a song about familial love and responsibilities.
In Common, one of the most experimental tracks on Here, while relegated to the Deluxe version of the album (a common practice among bigshot record artists when their first single underperformed on the charts), shows the more current side of Keys. It is Keys’ excellent foray into tropical music, and with the beats also infused with electronic collage, In Common is hands-down the most alluring dancehall track in the album.
Holy War, the most political track in Keys’ most political album to date, is the song for the post-election America. As Americans reel from the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing politics in the country, Keys asked “What if sex was holy and war was obscene, and it wasn’t twisted, what a wonderful dream”. The song’s powerful call of action “We can break these walls between each other”, a not-so-subtle reference to Trump’s proposal to “build the wall”, is a powerful close to the album. If anything, Here is Keys’ low-profile version of Rhythm Nation, released 25 years after the latter, but with an equally powerful message: That the world, after all this while, is still a mess.