Alicia Keys – ‘KEYS’ review: an intriguing concept, but not a top-tier project

The singer has been stunningly prolific in the past year or so, and – for better or worse – this sprawling record is ideal for the streaming era

20 years after her stunning debut, ‘Songs in A Minor’, Alicia Keys seems to be more prolific than ever. This eighth studio album arrives within 14 months of her seventh, 2020’s generally excellent ‘Alicia’, and has an ambitious overarching concept. Comprised of one side of so-called ‘Originals’ and another with ‘Unlocked’ remixes of many of the same songs, it’s a double LP with an epic 93-minute runtime – even recent Drake efforts can’t match that.

Keys has likened the two sides to “a Saturday and Sunday”, but it might be more accurate to call them a Sunday morning and slightly busier Sunday afternoon. The ‘Originals’ side is dominated by the soulful piano balladry that Keys has built her career on. Though nothing is as memorable as Keys classics like ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ and ‘Fallin”, her melodies are undeniably lovely. ‘Love When You Call My Name’ has that timeless vibe that Keys does so well, while the swirling love song ‘Billions’ is genuinely affecting.

Sadly, because the music is a little lacking in variety, it becomes difficult to ignore some blandly efficient lyrics. “For you I come guns blazing,” Keys sings on ‘Only You’. “Crazy as love is – it’s amazing.” It’s a rhyme that belongs on a B&M scatter cushion, not an album by an artist with 15 Grammy awards to her name.

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The ‘Unlocked’ side has more texture, thanks in part to sleek features from US crooner Khalid, who complements Keys sweetly on ‘Come for Me’, and rapper and singer Swae Lee on the sultry single ‘Lala (Unlocked)’. Co-produced by Keys with Kanye West and Beyoncé collaborator Mike Will Made It, most of the ‘Unlocked’ versions are brisker than the ‘Originals’, without being radically different. The surprising highlights are ‘Daffodils’, which is turned into a far darker song by its stomping industrial beat, and ‘Old Memories’, which becomes a shimmering gem worthy of early Whitney Houston. It’s a welcome reminder that Keys can boss a bop as well as a ballad.

‘Unlocked’ isn’t strong enough to turn this into a top-tier Alicia Keys album, but it does make it a project worth investigating. With some judicious pruning and sharp sequencing, any Keys fan should be able to carve out a pretty satisfying playlist. So, in its own accidental way, it’s a double album that works perfectly for the streaming era.

Details

Release date: December 10

Record label: RCA

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