Alicia Keys’ Here

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.

3.5/5

Lady Gaga: Joanne

Three years ago, Lady Gaga, one of the biggest pop artists of our time, experienced her first setback. Artpop, a dizzying concoction of her signature synthpop sound, electronica and the R&B music, saw the then-steady hitmaker appearing lost and confused. The neither-here-nor-there album was a critical and commercial disappointment, selling only 2.5 million units worldwide; a decent figure for any artist out there, but a disaster for someone who was so accustomed to huge album sales.

The period following Artpop was marked with the dramatic reconstruction of Gaga; she released a critically successful jazz album and starred in television shows. She never retreated completely from the spotlight, but the Lady Gaga that the world knew for her antics and eccentricities was slowly replaced by a much more demure and subdued persona. Madonna reinvented herself during Ray of Lights, but Gaga went one step further; she effectively abandoned her old self, building up a whole new image from scratch.

Joanne is a culmination of the reconstruction of Gaga. The sound here is raw and unadulterated, from the emotional outpouring in the title track to the spiritual moaning in “Angel Down”. Joanne’s title track tells the personal story of Gaga’s aunt Joanne who departed much too soon. “Every part of my aching heart, needs you more than the angels too”, she purred.

With Joanne, Gaga expressed her desire to free herself from the fame-centric persona that dominated the early years of her superstardom. On “Million Reasons”, the most emotional track on the album, Gaga murmured “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby, I just need one good one to stay”; which may suggest that she’s still in this for one good reason; the music perhaps. The piano-driven ballad, with its understated melody and pure soul is the strongest contender for a radio comeback for Gaga. In the haunting “Sinner’s Prayers”, Gaga sang about the shackles of her past. “I can carry you but not your ghosts”, she lamented. “Come to Mama” is sweet, with its chorus influenced by Motown giving it the timeless, evergreen sound.

While much of Joanne is made up of midtempo songs with strong soft-rock and country influences, the popstar Gaga is still present here. “A-YO” and “John Wayne” feature energetic arena choruses that hark back to Gaga’s “Born This Way” days. If Gaga is looking for a potential pop radio smash, “John Wayne” is a strong contender.

Joanne’s biggest disappointments are ironically in the tracks where Gaga seemed to put the most effort on. “Perfect Illusion”, co-written and co-produced with Mark Ronson (Uptown Funk) sounds like it still needs to be refined in the studio; the production is messy and distracting, and the chorus is painfully forgettable. “Hey Girl” featuring Florence Welsh sounds like a filler that could be best left in the bonus track edition.

With Joanne, Lady Gaga made the kind of music that she loved, but it remains to be seen if the general public will warm up to the new Gaga like they did to the eccentric, over-the-top “Judas” Gaga. One thing for sure is, Gaga has succeeded in making this album reflect who she truly is a person, and that, for an artiste, is a triumph.

4/5 stars

 

Speak soon,

FH