Alicia Keys, on and Off the Digital Grid
“Keys,” Alicia Keys’s new album, is a high-concept experiment, the kind of self-conscious, introspective project that has been emerging during the pandemic. Like Keys’s decision to no longer wear makeup in public, the album is in part a pushback against phony, superficial perfection. “I used to live hidden in a disguise,” she sings in “Plentiful,” an affirmation of both religious faith and faith in herself that opens the album.
“Keys” also exposes the options available to a 21st-century musician, the countless digital tweaks and variations. It’s a double album with 21 songs, eight of them appearing twice. It begins with “Originals,” tracks that Keys largely produced by herself, followed by “Unlocked”: alternate versions produced by Keys with the hitmaker Michael Williams II, who bills himself as Mike WiLL Made-It. Though the whole album is a studio production, “Originals” has a home-alone spirit, while “Unlocked” heads for the car and the club. Each half tells a different story about how songs move listeners, physically and emotionally.
The songs themselves explore desire, love and loneliness. Throughout her career, Keys has mingled the personal and the political, often invoking a woman’s strength and determination. But for most of “Keys,” she plays a woman in thrall to her feelings, by turns connected, needy, amorous, giving, desolate, jealous, and, eventually, healing. Most of the songs vamp through a handful of chords as Keys gives her voice room to leap, to curl, to muse, to syncopate; she has rarely sounded so jazzy and improvisatory.
The track list of “Keys” isn’t completely symmetrical. Each half of the album varies the sequence and includes unique songs. But anyone can now reshuffle an album, and “Keys” invites every listener to think like a producer, hearing the possibilities of timbre, propulsion, weight and context for every sound, while making clear how much those choices matter.
The “Originals” half of the album promises intimacy. Unlike her 2020 album, “Alicia,” which involved dozens of collaborators, “Keys” usually brings in just a handful of musicians for each song. There’s still plenty of audio illusion in her “Originals” versions, with samples (like the Sade drumbeat in “Best of Me”), multitracked backup vocals and scratchy-vinyl sound effects. Yet those songs determinedly conjure small, private spaces as she sings her way through mixed emotions. In the tearful “Dead End Road” she’s desperately trying to save a failing relationship, hinting at Aretha Franklin in a gospel-style call-and-response with a choir that seems to be coming from inside her own head, still encouraging her to “try to make it.”
In “Only You,” Keys declares, “I am nothing without you here” over reverberating piano chords, with the tempo fluctuating as if each line is occurring to her on the spot, though a band eventually joins her. And in “Is It Insane,” Keys is at the piano, leading a vintage-style jazz trio through complex chords as she sings about obsessing over an ex, deepening the grain of her voice like a latter-day Billie Holiday or Nina Simone while she begs, “Take away the pain.”
The “Unlocked” productions put Keys back into the digital grid that often defines current pop. After a gauzy intro, the second version of “Only You” announces the changeover with a steady-thumping beat and digitally chopped-up bits of piano and lead vocal along with sound effects, including sirens and a gunshot. It’s a sign of what’s to come: heftier beats, vocal phrases crisped into hooks, guest appearances (like a nonchalant Lil Wayne spot on “Nat King Cole,” a song that challenges its hearer to become “unforgettable”).
The “Unlocked” tracks have virtues of their own. They push Keys’s voice upfront, with a sharper focus. They give Keys a confident strut when she’s enjoying the romance in “Skydive” and “Love When You Call My Name,” and they shift “Old Memories,” a 1950s-tinged song about what music can trigger, from regret toward resilience. Mike Will also deploys little background interjections — a vocal snippet, a saxophone flourish, a handful of plucked guitar notes — as ingenious, near-subliminal attention-grabbers.
But the “Unlocked” songs sound like public performances, neat and armored and solidly 4/4, more locked than unlocked. The “Originals” hint at freer, messier, closer, unresolved feelings, daringly unguarded — and thoroughly, openly human.