Two tracks into her surprisingly fresh sixth album, Alicia Keys issues a mission statement: “Gotta speak the truth when I’m up in the booth.” For the next 45 minutes, the piano-playing New Yorker barely falters as she shows a more honest and socially conscious side to her songwriting. Most of the time, it suits her.
From an early reference to her humble upbringing “in a tenement… listenin’ to the hook”, Keys doesn’t shy away from the personal here. On ‘Blended Family (What You Do For Love)’ she celebrates the complexity of her home life and addresses her stepson directly: “Hey, I might not really be your mother / That don’t mean that I don’t really love ya.” But just as often, she looks outwards. ‘Illusion Of Bliss’ offers a sensitive exploration of addiction, ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’ tackles unrealistic female beauty standards, and ‘Where Do We Begin Now?’ is a relatable portrait of a same-sex relationship. Although ‘Here’ features some vaguer moments like the bland “one love, one love” vocal hook on ‘She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv’, this doesn’t mean Keys pulls her punches. ‘Holy War’ is a heartfelt plea for tolerance and equality in a world Keys describes as “divided by difference, sexuality and skin”. “So maybe we should love somebody / Instead of polishing the bombs of holy war”, she sings grittily over thudding Phil Collins-style drums.
Keys’ lyrics are generally more interesting than in the past, but ‘Here’ also soars because the music feels looser and more youthful than her usual radio-devouring ballads. ‘Girl Can’t Be Herself’ rides a Latin-flecked R&B bounce, ‘The Gospel’ and ‘Pawn It All’ wed soulful melodies to old-school hip-hop beats, and ‘Work On It’ is a classic-sounding soul ballad that wrong-foots you with a surprisingly restrained chorus. Though it’s unfairly relegated to the deluxe edition, Keys’ percolating summer single ‘In Common’ remains the freshest, coolest track she’s ever recorded. We’ve known since she debuted with ‘Fallin’’ in 2001 that Alicia Keys can write songs that sound anthemic. But with ‘Here’, it feels as though she’s dug deep to produce a set of genuine, heartfelt and relevant anthems.