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Alicia Keys’s experimental album stops short of reaching its tall ambitions – review

Alicia Keys’s experimental album stops short of reaching its tall ambitions – review
Soul singer continues to elide the distance between eras and genres on an ambitious new album

At seven years old, Alicia Keys began practising the Suzuki method – a Japanese philosophy that teaches music as if it’s a native language – to learn classical piano. Another seven years passed and she took up jazz. At 15, she signed with Columbia Records. These are formative moments in the story of a singer whose ability to fully embody classicism and modernity in a single note has earned her 15 Grammys. KEYS is the latest chapter in the saga – and it’s a long one.

Keys’s eighth studio album clocks in at one and a half hours, already putting it on the backfoot with an attention-deficit audience. There’s a method to the madness, though. KEYS is, in fact, a two-for-one deal. Its first half comprises “Originals”,  a collection of piano-and-vocals tracks. Many of these songs are then remixed – courtesy of co-producer Mike Will Made It – into new versions described as “Unlocked”.

The songs are good, but they await rawness. The concept of an album with one half dedicated to, as Keys put it in a TikTok, “laidback piano vibes” promises an absence of sheen. But the Originals are polished themselves. Bouncy, slick production coats them like a layer of glossy ganache. It’s not an indictment, just a surprise. The Originals reaffirm Keys’s connection to Sixties and Seventies soul, while cleaving closer to jazz than she has before. “Best Of Me” (Originals) is a standout. It’s a drifting slow-burning number that samples Sade’s “Cherish the Day”. Keys vows her love as the music crests and crests. Its Unlocked sibling picks up the energy with supplementary electronics. Crucially, it does so without letting go of that woozy, giddy sensation.

There are other enigmatic moments on KEYS. “Plentiful” opens as a handsome piano ballad that pivots into vigorously delivered hip-hop verses by Pusha T. But while there are high points – many of them, surprisingly, found in their Unlocked iteration – the album fails to leave an impression in the same way as the singer’s previous releases. You’ll like it, for sure. But you may not remember it.