Pictured sans makeup and donning a voluminous, untamed afro on Here’s stark black-and-white cover, Alicia Keys seems more awake and relaxed than ever on her first album in four years. “Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my self-esteem,” she wonders on “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” reflective of her controversial effort to inspire a makeup-free movement earlier this year.
Even more naked, however, are Keys’s performances throughout Here. The fearlessness with which she’s ventured outside her vocal range—a signature tick, for better or worse—has always been endearing, but when Keys stretches near the end of “Pawn It All,” the effect is elastic rather than strained. And when her voice fails her on “Illusion of Bliss,” she embraces the moment and lets out a guttural wail, lending weight to a borderline-pedantic narrative of a drug addict in a spiritual spiral. Keys’s voice cracks and creaks as she pleads for salvation on “Hallelujah,” the vocal imperfections, spare percussion, and soulful handclaps juxtaposed with a more refined string section.
Keys sing-speaks the verses of “Where Do We Begin Now,” the intended emphasis of which seems to be on the song’s minimalist production rather than a radio-friendly melody. Her vocals are similarly restrained on lead single “In Common,” backed by a pointillistic collage of electronic beats and tropicalia rhythms. The songs here are less rigidly adherent to formula: “The Gospel” forgoes a traditional chorus altogether, while “She Don’t Really Care” breaks from its ode to New York City’s black and brown women for an extended vibraphone jam session before seguing into an entirely different song. Here may not boast the indelible hooks of Keys’s past albums, as it leans less on classic R&B tropes, but it also eschews the drippy piano ballads that have bogged down her recent releases.
Keys channels both the R&B balladry of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on “More Than We Know” and Unplugged-era Hill on “Kill Your Mama,” an acoustic protest song about capitalism, genetic engineering, and institutionalized racism. At times Here feels like it wants to be What’s Going On, the standard-bearer of socially-conscious soul, but it’s more akin to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, mixing the political with the personal. “What if sex was holy and war was obscene/And it wasn’t twisted,” Keys declares on “Holy War,” which is, at its core, a love song. On Here, the political is personal.