There’s a defining moment on Here, the sixth studio album from Alicia Keys. It comes about halfway through the record on a song called Illusion of Bliss, with the sparse but homely production – all organ and leisured drum – the perfect bed for Keys to let loose that raspy, soulful, almost freestyling side of her we haven’t seen since The Diary of Alicia Keys.
As people who were influenced by Keys and her seminal first chapters, there is no greater relief. It’s been frustrating to see her try to pander to commercial diktats in recent years, losing the R&B essence that made her special while never quite managing to hit the higher echelons of pop either. Not the case here, as she bursts out the gate with The Gospel and immediately gets us reacquainted with that East Coast orchestration that endeared us to her in the first place.
Much like her recent stance against wearing make-up, this is Keys keeping it real. She’s addressing issues at the grassroots, perhaps less politically than Solange, but still with an earthy texture that feels relatable. There’s the gospel sound of Pawn It All, the acoustic campfire stance of Kill Your Mama, and then that middle one-two punch of Illusion and Blended Family (What You Do For Love).
Of course, this being Keys there is still the occasional foray into MOR territory, but there’s no denying that she sounds more comfortable and confident than she’s been in years. Shorn of the shackles of expectation, Keys cuts loose, she allows herself to have fun, but most importantly she brings with her a fire that’s been absent in any R&B star for years. Here, as the album title says, is Alicia Keys and quite appropriately she’s never felt more present as an artist.