2016 has brought us a slew of artistic reinventions. From Beyoncé to Lady Gaga, some of music’s biggest artists have been pushing their art towards the more personal and more conscious.

This change has largely been a welcome one, with albums like “Lemonade” and “Joanne,” receiving high praise for their themes of empowerment and their relevance regarding the current social and political climate.

In alignment with this trend of more personal songwriting within the pop sphere, Alicia Keys has returned with her first new music in four years with “HERE.” Keys has described this album as “me being my most truthful,” and it showcases her at her most raw and honest yet.

The album cover, featuring a simple black and white photo of Keys wearing no makeup and with her natural hair, encapsulates what this album is about quite well: exposing your true self and identity confidently, without any hesitation imposed by societal expectations or norms.

Keys writes about these themes through the lens of her own identity as a woman of color, as well as through her life and experiences in New York City.

Opening up the album with a spoken-word interlude, Keys begins by proclaiming herself “Nina Simone in the park,” “Harlem in the dark,” and “the erratic energy that gets in your skin,”, among other images. Lines like these might come off as hubris in a context outside that of the album, but they make sense considering the strong theme of self-acceptance and identity on the album.

If the opening interlude is a prologue, “The Gospel” is the beginning of this album’s story, setting the scene in rough-and-tumble New York before devolving into myriad “yeah”s and “oh”s. The instrumental here is strong, however, with its off-kilter, piano-based beat pairing well with the imagery of the song.

“Pawn it All” brings a harder-hitting groove and a bluesy vibe that suites Keys well, evoking more of her early material than many other tracks on the album. Lyrically, the song deals with desperation and the yearning for second chances in a city like New York, where they aren’t easy to come by.

Keys expands the conscientiousness of the record with “Kill Your Mama,” which features Keys describing the wrongs we have committed against Mother Nature. The instrumental on this song is rather boring, however, featuring just a simply-strummed and poorly-recorded acoustic guitar that doesn’t quite sit well with Keys’ polished vocals.

Keys refocuses on “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv,” returning to the album’s greater message. The first portion of the track describes a sort of archetype for the type of self-confident identity Keys is trying to push on the album, perhaps modeled, to some degree, off herself. In the second portion we see Keys seeming to check her own privilege (“All along I’ve ignored what I’ve always known/That the chair I’ve been sitting on is a throne”), a concept that would be welcome and interesting to see her tackle if the rest of the song didn’t drift away from that idea, leaving a lot to be desired.

“Illusion of Bliss” is another New York story about a young woman struggling on her own. Keys delivers her most impassioned vocal on the record here, reaching the point of sounding unpolished and raw. This serves to heighten the track’s emotional impact, but it is questionable as to why Keys chose this song in particular to have such a vocal.

The overall issue with this album, though, is best encapsulated by “Girl Can’t Be Herself.” This song, which is the most shallow description of the album’s themes, slaps you in the face with its message, which, while incredibly valid and important, could be delivered in a better way. It seems like with “HERE,” Keys is trying to tackle every big social issue in the books, but her broad, all-reaching approach leaves listeners with many mediocre tracks that only scratch the surface of big problems without tackling them completely.

The album does, of course, have its good musical moments. Songs like “Where Do We Begin Now” have striking production but again deal with yet another social issue (here being same-sex relationship acceptance) in a surface-level way. It’s wonderful that artists in the mainstream care about these issues and include them in their work, but doing them more justice with better songwriting focus would help a lot in not making albums seem like an attempt to pander.

Alicia Keys is moving with the tide, but just because the tide has been responsible for a lot of good music as of late doesn’t mean that every record that subscribes to its trends will be a home run.



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