Track-by-track review of Here by Alicia Keys (5 stars)

Track-by-track review of Here by Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys' most powerful work in her sixth studio album Here

The wait for Alicia Keys' album, Here, has been agonising for many, as she's teased fans by dropping some carefully placed tracks in the run up to the release. Using grassroots promotion, such as directly tweeting the track list, she managed to create massive anticipation, proving she's truly at the heart of the album and its promotion.

Her approach shows how the Alicia Keys we've come to know is stripped back, organic and free of fuss compared to other artists of her stature. The singer is known for her skills on piano and her soulful voice, and is armed with a back catalogue that boasts consistency in the quality of her music. But Keys has also become an ambassador for some of the most pressing social and political issues plaguing today's world: global concerns such as the refugee crisis in war torn countries; speaking out about police brutality against black men in the US; inspiring women and choosing to publicly be make up free. Bringing together all the important elements Keys embodies, Here is packed with some of the most powerful and mature work she's ever produced. The record is brimming with issues and themes that Keys continues to speak out about, including female empowerment, race, freedom, homosexuality, while remaining true to her New York roots.

'The Beginning (Interlude)'
The opening interlude lays Keys' mindset bare for the listener. Looking to singers such as Nina Simone, Keys sets out her ideas, preparing us for themes of ambition, hustle and power. She speaks about being the 'history of the turntables' and 'mystery of what's inside of the speaker cables', metaphors which bring out her home city's musical legacy.

'The Gospel'
'The Gospel' eases us into the journey Here is taking the listener on. Instead of her usual soulful vocals, Keys raps and poetically spits 'The Gospel's verses, demonstrating her New York aggression as she describes the hustle of struggling families. Even paying homage to the 'roaches and rats', Keys shows she's 'here' now, but this is what she's come from. She doesn't let us forget that it is this New York mentality that is her bread and butter, and this is gospel to her.

'Pawn it All'
Sometimes you have to lose it all to pay for the price for freedom. This is a refreshing listen from an artist who's evidently worked hard to have it all – a motivational anthem that manages to remain catchy while speaking important truths.

'Elaine Brown (Interlude)'
With words from former Black Panther Party chairwoman, Elaine Brown, Keys prepares listeners for the next track, 'Kill Your Mama'. Describing this as 'poetry from the streets' the words describe the blood, sweat and tears that mothers experience.

'Kill Your Mama'
Giving a nod to strong female characters, Keys asks mothers (hers, or ours) for forgiveness, recognising sacrifices and efforts to put children on the right path. Keys weaves in a double meaning with 'mama' also referring to the motherland and addressing humans killing humanity. This is a warning on ignorance and killing what has been created by previous generations.

'She Don't Really Care' / '1 Luv'
Laid onto a simple beat, this track is reminiscent of early-days Keys. Pinpointing a young woman looking for instant gratification and status from a man, Keys specifically refers to a woman from a migrant background who's looking for the wrong things: material possessions and easy love. The singer echoes some of the messages she's given when speaking out in the #MakeupFree campaign.

This track blends into '1 Luv', but here Keys shows a learning curve as a woman. Empowering women as queens, she sings: 'Now I know I am wisdom on my own', borrowing a sample from fellow New Yorker Nas' 1994 track 'One Love'.

'Elevate (Interlude)'
Life lessons are a huge theme in Here, and in 'Elevate', Keys brings about a conversation about building, education, evolving and taking yourself to new heights.

'Illusion of Bliss'
Channeling the blues, 'Illusion of Bliss' will be pleasing to those waiting to hear the best of Keys' vocal abilities. Moving, emotional, powerful – this is Keys at her finest, her presence and passion evident from the cracks in her vocals.

'Blended Family (What You do for Love) feat. A$AP Rocky'
Previously released as a single, when compared to the rest of the album, 'Blended Family's mainstream vibe is clear. An ode to Keys' stepchildren, the song showcases the only feature on Here, A$AP Rocky – the rest of the songs need only Keys' powerful presence.

'Work on It'
Continuing with the family theme, 'Work on It' is about Keys' husband, with Keys giving a raw take on relationships (another theme that's evident throughout). Whatever topics Keys handles, she displays a stance that is truthful and far from sugarcoated.

'Cocoa Butter (Cross & Pic Interlude)'
An interlude to the next song, 'Cocoa Butter' is a snippet of mens' conversations about stretch marks. The conversations – the conclusion of which is that stretch marks are just another insecurity that all humans deal with – are comical, but an interesting look at both male and female's takes on body insecurity.

'Girl Can't be Herself'
A great anthem about Keys' well-publicised decision to forgo makeup. It's refreshing to hear an artist speak out on this with such eloquence and powerful wordplay, juxtaposing a world so rigidly obsessed with seeing women beautified in a specific way. The confidence and security within Keys is plain to see from this track: 'I'm so secure with insecurities / why is being unique such an impurity?'

'You Glow (Interlude)'
Keys has always been outspoken about the injustices that Black Americans have faced and, in the past, has campaigned against the Boko Haram kidnappings. In this short interlude of 24 seconds she quickly and compassionately makes a statement through a story about how race is really nothing but a social construct.

'More than we Know'
Keys has been on an epic journey in the last few years and, by throwing herself into social and political issues, she has proved people can all do 'more than we know'. This song urges the listener to give humanity a hug and to get involved.

'Where do we Begin Now'
Exploring same-sex relationships, Keys navigates the blurry feelings about being in love with someone of the same sex when homosexuality has always been a taboo feeling, handling the issue with class and intrigue, while balancing reality with optimistic messages.

'Holy War'
Keys dropped this track some days before the release of Here and has already performed it at the Keep A Child Alive's Black Ball. The song is stripped back and calm: alongside an acoustic guitar, Keys takes a moment in the album to speak about wars and how humans have become numb to the atrocities happening every day.

Released in June, 'Hallelujah' is about redemption, and is perfectly placed to calm after the heaviness of the songs that come before it. The track takes a turn towards dealing with struggle and looking for hope.

'In Common'
To end the album, Keys turns to something familiar – a lighter tune with a flirty beat and easy vibes. While the song is clearly about a romantic relationship, the messages on this album are all about unity, with 'In Common' bolstering this for a powerful end track.

Here is out now on RCA.