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Monday, June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

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Alicia Keys’ risky moves pay off

Singer/pianist has earned the right to do what she wants


Is Alicia Keys an underachiever, an overachiever, or both?

A 15-time Grammy Award winner, the classically trained pianist is a versatile singer and songwriter who has made a broad impact with — and beyond — her music.

Keys is currently on the North American leg of her 2022 world tour, which was pushed back from 2020 to last year — and then once more from 2021 — because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keys’ albums have sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. They were propelled by a slew of hit songs that include “Fallin’,” “If I Ain’t Got You,” “No One,” “Girl On Fire” and — with Jay-Z — 2009’s “Empire State of Mind,” which she subsequently re-did on her own as “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down.”

In April, Keys’ 2001 debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Her candid 2020 memoir, “More Myself: A Journey,” made the New York Times bestsellers list, while this March saw the release of her first graphic novel, “Girl on Fire.”

An entrepreneur with her own skin care line, Keys has credits including work as a film, TV and Broadway theater producer. In 2003, she co-founded Keep A Child Alive, a nonprofit organization that provides care and support to families with HIV and AIDS in Africa and India.

Keys, 41, is also a devoted social justice champion. Her performance at the 2016 Democratic National Convention included an impassioned plea for peace and solidarity.

“Until we deal with gun violence in this country, we can’t claim ‘home of the brave,’” Keys told the DNC audience. “It’s time to stand together and be unified. We have to show the world that bigotry and fear will never win, ’cause we have so much in common.”

Given her many accomplishments and commitment to the causes she supports, it might seem churlish to even suggest Keys may be an underachiever.

Her many awards and heady commercial success are formidable testaments to what she has accomplished, after signing a major record label deal when she was just 15. But Keys’ body of work as a musician has only sometimes revealed the full depth of her artistry — and her potential for creating truly innovative work that explores new vistas by digging deeper into her creativity.

By her own account, it was only with her eighth album — 2016’s socially charged “Here” — that Keys largely cast commercial considerations to the wind. It was then that she let her emotions fully come to the fore.

“Here” is a brave if uneven album that sees her addressing such diverse topics as climate change (“Kill Your Mama”), addiction (“Illusion of Bliss”), impossible beauty standards (“Girl Can’t Be Herself”), same-sex relationships (“Where Do We Begin Now”) and racial inequities (the Nina Simone-inspired “The Gospel”).

‘Challenge status quo’

Speaking of her “Here” album in a 2020 interview with The Guardian newspaper, Keys said: “That was the first time in my life that I didn’t compromise. I wanted to challenge the status quo, and challenge my own self to be truthful. You work so hard at being digestible, at being something that people are not offended by.

“It becomes a habit — especially for women — and it really starts in childhood. For our whole life, we’re trying to figure out how to be the good girl, when really, the bad girl is not bad; they’re just expressing another side, or in touch with anger or frustration. Finally, I turned around, like: ‘I just want to talk about the sh— that makes me mad.’”

It was a sound move, even if “Here” remains the lowest-selling album of Keys’ career.

Her follow-up, 2020’s more upbeat “Alicia,” saw its release date pushed back by half a year because of the pandemic. It sounded like a retreat, musically, to safer, more listener-friendly territory, perhaps in response to the limited commercial success of “Here.”

But the pandemic did more than just delay “Alicia” and Keys’ world tour. It gave her an unplanned period of extended solitude at home with her family.

With no concert dates or deadline pressures, Keys was free to ruminate and to explore making music simply for the sake of making music.

The result was her largely homegrown 2021 double album, “Keys,” which — at 21 songs and about 90 minutes — is her most expansive and ambitious release to date.

The album features two distinctly different discs. The first — the intimate, 11-song “Originals” — puts Keys and her supple singing and piano playing in the spotlight. The second, the 10-song “Unlocked,” reimagines eight of the songs from “Originals,” but in newly mixed or remixed versions that are more beat-conscious and comparatively radio-friendly, if still musically left of center.

For those listeners who want to hear Keys stretching out and taking chances, “Originals” offers many pleasures. They include the bluesy torch songs “Old Memories” and “Nat King Cole,” the jazzy ballad “Is It Insane” and the gospel-flavored “Dead End Road.”

All four songs are reimagined — some subtly, some overtly — in their “Unlocked” versions. The intertwining nature of “Keys,” which presents two disparate but complementary versions of the same music, is a fascinating creative exploration, if not an altogether unprecedented one.

Shania Twain simultaneously released three versions of her “Up!” album in 2002, while Taylor Swift has thus far released two versions of two of her albums, “Fearless” and “Red.”

But Swift’s new versions, which were released a decade or more after the original albums came out, were prompted by a legal dispute over the ownership of her songs. And Twain spent several years working on her three versions of “Up!” (one country, one pop and one fashioned in the style of Bollywood film music from India).

Keys, conversely, put “Keys” together in a much shorter period of time and made it as a double album, not two individual releases. The quiet release of “Keys” at the end of last year suggests that she realized this was not an album that would propel her back to the top of the charts.

What makes “Keys” so enjoyable, and commendable, is that Keys was willing to take chances and experiment, to stretch at will, without worrying about how listeners might respond.