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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Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes – “Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “Let’s Get High,” “Remember to Remember”

The first minute and a half of the song “If I Were Free” features two singers. The first singer has two brief moments of vocal impression – Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The second singer, Ringo Starr ala “Yellow Submarine.” These vocal inflections are not meant to be intentional. The band is not trying to repeat the music done by those that inspire them. The vocal similarities to Dylan, Springsteen and Starr more seem to slip out, and that is what most of this album is. “Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes” feels like odes to those that came before, with it’s attempts at originality feeling somewhat mixed. Self-titled albums are meant to be declarations of the band’s distinct sound, but this album is ironically the least original of their three.

“Up From Below,” the debut from Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, had a distinct country-folk sound that was trimmed perfectly for crossover radio. “Home” is a country song, completely, but found love on alternative radio (and in my head for a whole summer). Their follow-up, “Here” was an underrated gospel-based gem. This new, self-titled album doesn’t have as much of the mixing as it seems to think it has. It more resembles a Dylan album, when he was at his mid-60′s peak. Five studio musicians join the band’s eleven members on the album, but it feels like a one-person operation at times. Lengthy openers “Better Days” and “Let’s Get High” sound like a number of musicians gathered around one songwriter, following his or her lead, instead of a collective. “Let’s Get High” is a phenomenally energetic and great song, but one that doesn’t quite capture the feel of the band. Luckily, the album doesn’t continue this feel, as the songs get shorter and more voices are introduced. Lead singer Alex Ebert is given many lead moments (especially on “This Life”), but so is back-up singer Jade Castrinos, who gets to shine bright 0n “Remember to Remember.” Other singers are thrown into the mix, too, and frequently. Once the album gets past it’s inspired but dragging opening two tracks, it begins to feel like the huge collaborative effort it should.

“Two,” which is humorously the third song, is a beautiful duet between Ebert and Castrinos. “Life is Hard” and “If I Were Free” make the album’s middle a fun if agenda-less listen, bolstered by skilled songwriting. The pace drags towards the end. There are a number of slow songs that seemed to flow together, and lost my interest. The halted pace overstays it’s welcome, but at least it doesn’t finish out the album. The aforementioned “This Life” and “Remember to Remember” are not fast songs, but serve as powerful ending notes to the album. It is mixed, overall, and lacks the based-yet-blended originality that its predecessors had, but “Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes” is, at its core, an enjoyable folk collective, aiming high and hitting it more often than not.

If you like this, try: Phosphorescent’s criminally underrated folk-everything album “Muchacho” (2013)

-By Andrew McNally