With the passing of time often comes a diminishing pool of inspiration for artists.
When the hunger that comes from being a starving artist is long forgotten, when red carpets and fast cars become mundane and the exceptional life becomes ordinary, from where does one pull inspiration?
It’s a question artists in their 40s and beyond have struggled to answer for decades, and many haven’t succeeded, see Jay Z for example. Those that do, often are forced to find inspiration in unlikely or unconventional places.
David Bowie found it by staring directly into the void on Blackstar, and on her latest album Alicia Keys finds it by staring into the past.
In all caps, Keys announces her latest project HERE, but it also could’ve been named THERE. Throughout the length of the LP Keys switches between her tried and true piano-driven pop-soul with traditionally black genres from the past such as country, jazz and gospel.
Throughout the project, Keys sings from the perspective of the present imagining and contemplating the harsh realities of black lives in the past. She exists in two temporalities simultaneously, showing time is circular and history does, indeed, repeat itself — especially for those oppressed.
This isn’t the only device at play in the album. There are moments of personal experience as well, but always with the sense that they stand in for something greater.
After a brief interlude, Keys begins the album with “The Gospel.” It’s an exhilarating track that sets the tone for the rest of the project. Keys belts lyrics along the lines of, “Roaches and the rats, heroin and the crack / you can’t blame me, I’m just giving the facts,” while pulse-pumping piano glissandos and booming drums soar.
It’s a track firmly rooted in the politics of the past, but employs contemporary musical styles. This contrast highlights the core of the album.
On the next track, “Pawn it All,” a hymnal track noteworthy less so for its piano, but more so for its surging drums. On tracks like these, where Keys departs from her typical musical style, she seems to take the role of someone else.
She sings, “I would pawn you my watch, I’d pawn you everything / if it would just mean I could start my life all over again.”
Keys, a multi-platinum artist, is clearly not who she sings to be on this track, but rather she is breathing life into the narrative of someone forgotten in the annals of our country’s history, maybe someone in the Great Migration.
This device is repeated on other tracks like the country elegy “Kill Your Mama,” the slow gospel jam “Illusion of Bliss” and ’70s soul-inspired “Work On It.”
In between these tracks, Keys gives us more of her personal style, where she positions herself as an observer of today’s problems from her own standpoint.
On “Blended Family,” for example, she laments what women nowadays have to do, or rather are forced to do.
Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye Jr. gives a heartfelt verse, on being the kind of man there needs to be more of. While it does fit the track well, as a side note it is a little unconvincing considering the blatant misogyny riddled throughout his own discography.
Keys concludes the album with one of its best, “Holy War.” It’s a folky guitar-driven track that converges the past into the present.
Keys leaves us with the message, “It seems forgiveness is the only revenge.”
Personal politics aside, the album’s optimistic finale is heartwarming.
At Keys’ stage as an artist, she really has no need to be experimental or innovative. She’s proven her artistry time and time again, but yet she sets out to do so once again on HERE.
While it’s not groundbreaking by any means, with this album Keys has produced a political statement in the form of a love letter to black music and black people of the past — and a lovely one at that.