Alicia Keys – “Here”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “The Gospel” “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”

It’s safe to say that usually, when you hear an Alicia Keys song, you know it’s an Alicia Keys song. She hasn’t changed her format much since 2001 – because she hasn’t had to. Be it 2001 or 2013, put Alicia behind a piano and let her sing and it’s worth a listen. Alicia Keys could sing the Articles of Confederation and it would sound incredible. Over five albums, Keys proved again and again that she is a vocal and musical powerhouse, and has dominated R&B and pop-crossover since the dawn of the century. But, as any casual fan has probably noticed, it was time for a change.

2016 has seen an absurd amount of black artists put out works that focus on the state of black America today, albeit loosely or directly; Keys joins ScHoolboy Q, Beyonce, YG, Kanye, Vince Staples, Young Thug, De La Soul, and even just today, Common, in releasing an album that focuses on what black America is going through right now. With Keys, it is obviously not as upfront as, say, ScHoolboy Q, but it hits harder than you would ever expect Alicia Keys to. The album’s front half is one long piece, with songs transitioning into skits and back, weaving through life as a black American.

Keys starts strong, after an intro, with “The Gospel,” an ode to growing up in New York. It’s a tough song. It starts off innocently enough, with just Keys and piano, before she starts rapping over rapid-fire drums. By all accounts, it never strays from being a Keys song, but couples that ‘sound’ with staccato drums and honest lyrics about a poor life. The follow-up, “Pawn It All,” complements the ‘universal’ of “The Gospel” with a personal story that still feels universal. In it, she sings “I would give you everything / Just to start my life over again,” which feels far more introspective, but still touches on a moment that most people have either experienced or at least felt. After “The Gospel,” it’s tough not to hear in terms of black Americans feeling despair at the current state.

The next two non-interludes are two very differing tracks, “Kill Your Mama,” easily the most abrasive song title in the Keys canon, and “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv.” The former is a short track of just Keys and acoustic guitar, with some powerfully violent lyrics. The latter is a lengthy, winding song that makes a constant, casual reference to the Fugees amidst its loose feel. The track registers at over 6 minutes, and goes through rhythmic changes not necessarily common to the Alicia Keys songbook.

From this point on, it is safer to say we get some Keys standards, although she does spend the entire album coming out of her comfort zone. This album’s “Girl On Fire” is called “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” and is anchored by the excellent line, “When a girl can’t be herself no more, I just want to cry for the world.” Another highlight is “Work On It,” which uses the idea of background vocals in an energetic and catchy way.

Even with the album’s more “traditional” songs, there is a feeling of uncertainty, a feeling of change. It is painfully apparent that this is a different Alicia Keys – one ready to tackle social issues. I listened to this album on Spotify, where I had this album’s cover – of her, seemingly shirtless, an afro stretching past the frame, standing to the side, in the same shot as the cover of her last album, 2012’s “Girl On Fire,” where she stares straight, in a dress and straight hair, staring forwards. Both are black & white. It seems like Keys is making a reference to who she was in 2012, to note that that’s not who she is in 2016. This album really takes on a tremendous amount of weight, a weight not expected or asked of Keys, but a weight that so many black musicians are bearing in America right now. “Here” is a frank, diverse-yet-direct piece of political art from someone who has usually had the luxury of staying away. If Alicia Keys can’t help, who can?

-By Andrew McNally

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Pharrell – “G I R L”

(Photo Credit: Hollywood Reporter)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Hunter” “Gust of Wind”

This was a risky time for Pharrell to release a solo album. He’s riding the waves of one of the most successful years someone in music can have. He had guest spots on the two biggest songs of last summer – “Get Lucky” and “Blurred Lines,” and he co-wrote and produced two songs on Beyonce’s instant-legend self-titled album. He wore a silly, hip-hop-historical and now famous hat to the Grammy’s, and he released a 24 hour music video for his big hit, “Happy.” Pharrell is, nowadays, now famous for producing and guest spots, hugely overshadowing his solo work and his music with N.E.R.D. and the Neptunes. So if “G I R L” were to be underwhelming, it would likely derail the ever-increasing speed of the train that Pharrell is at the helm of. Luckily, “G I R L” is a sufficient pop release. It isn’t the most memorable of albums, but it strongly benefits from an all-inviting sound, a consistent feminist agenda, and huge name guest spots from Pharrell’s long, long contact list.

Pharrell tried to hit all bases with “G I R L,” and he certainly succeeds. It’s sexy – like the sweaty “Hunter.” It’s classy, with opener “Marilyn Monroe.” And it’s friendly – centered around the smash hit “Happy,” which seems to actually be stylized on the album as “Happy (from Despicable Me 2).” You know, the kids movie. The very next song is “Come Get It Bae,” featuring the not-family-friendly Miley Cyrus. Whatever your fancy is with pop music, “G I R L” likely hits it.

The guest spots, though usually not the focus of a review, are something to marvel at. As mentioned, Miley drops in. And so do Alicia Keys, Daft Punk, Kelly Osbourne, a very falsetto-y Justin Timberlake, Timbaland (relegated to beatboxing) and, unpredictably, JoJo. And the strings on the album – arranged by Hans Zimmer. The cast on this album reads like a Wes Anderson movie. And just like an Anderson film – some of the appearances are solely based on “look who I got to be here!,” while some, especially Daft Punk, add a whole level of depth and help separate each track from the next.

And it’s good that each song is distinct enough to stand out – because Pharrell, on his own, isn’t actually all that strong. The rare moments when he raps on the album work, but otherwise, his voice usually just blends into the background. Think about “Happy” – his voice only overpowers the music because the music is minimal during the chorus, and it’s catchy because of how his voice acts as an instrument, not for the lyrics. There are moments where he ups into falsetto, and he really doesn’t hit the notes. There are a couple moments were it resembles watching a Top 12 American Idol giving what you just know is their last performance. It just isn’t quite there, overall. But it’s a boatload of fun, so it’s never an issue.

“G I R L” is all linked together by a distinctly feministic tone. It’s almost possible to see this – and “Get Lucky” and his work on Beyonce’s album – as an apology for the gut-wrechnigly misogynist (and possibly divorce-causing) “Blurred Lines.” Pharrell sometimes skirts the lines of male pop feminism – respecting women’s bodies and sexual desires, etc., and sometimes fully delves into actual feminism. It helps to create a consistent tone, and let’s be real, it’s just nice to hear. Inviting feminist-leaning artists like Daft Punk, Timberlake and the severely misunderstood Miley Cyrus only helps that. The era of patriarchal sex-pop is coming to a close, and Pharrell seems to be the one locking the doors.

So “G I R L” only suffers from Pharrell himself not being the most talented singer. And given that this is his first solo album in eight years, it’s not his specialty. He produced the whole album, and wrote every song, much more his strong suits. The album is not the most memorable, because it all feels familiar. But it’s still enjoyable and every song is unique. It sounds by the books, if every song was taken from a different book than the one previous. “G I R L” is a listen for those of all ages and musical preferences. There’s something for everyone, and his “music for everyone” approach helps to bolster the feminist themes. “G I R L” won’t be one of the albums of the year, but it’s a more than decent pop release, and one that will help Pharrell continue his unstoppable reign.

-By Andrew McNally