The medium is not the message – or the messenger - but it sure makes a difference.
Admiration for Alicia Keys as an individual and as an artist is deserved. There is about her, and has been from the start, a quality of solid humanity that was never ossified into certainty but provided the base for exploration and growth. That is, she was not afraid to question her beliefs as vigorously as she challenged wider society’s, and she was prepared to address factors that compromised one or the other with open mind as much as open heart.
This was true whether we were talking sexual politics or domestic misbehaviour, racism or the inherent assumptions of the “good” (motherhood, sacrifice, deference) and the “bad” (individualism, ambition, pride). You didn’t have to agree with her choices – musical as well as social/political – to respect the approach.
That she did this with sometimes liquid, usually attractive pop music that crossed back and forth between soul and contemporary R&B wasn’t the bonus; it was part of the deal. Like her voice it was never obviously dominant but felt like class.
This self-titled seventh album is a continuation of her lessons in life: lessons for herself and us. There are regular exhortations to know yourself and then stay true to it; encouragement to think that the future is not yet written in the grimmest of hues; recognition that pleasing others can become second nature, but is ultimately self-destructive; an element of vacillation between believing in the redemptive side of love and knowing the dangers in falling for just that sort of belief.
In an album of mixed collaborators on both writing and performing sides (among the latter, Jill Scott, Sampha, Khalid and Miguel), Keys remains the one you hear and watch. You’re never in doubt that these are contributors not co-controllers. (Well, except for Underdog which nagged away at me as so Ed Sheeran as to be grating – or something Sheeran would nick in a couple of years and then be sued for - and then I checked the credits and found it was indeed co-written by the Englishman. Sigh.)
So, the message is clear and delivered. Half the work is done. However, if your goal is to advise and uplift, to guide and to reveal, and then to stick that message, the medium – the method of your delivery - needs to match, and this is where Alicia falters.
It all sounds attractive, but there just aren’t enough songs that nail their landing (Authors Of Forever, for example, launches with a sparkling groove and then …) and a few too many songs which drag you back. Songs such as Wasted Energy, whose reggae lope and light dub moments suggests a kind of Wyclef Jean warm-over, So Done (with Khalid) which comes with a buttery softness, Love Looks Better, whose form is the spirit-raising stride, and Authors Of Forever, the gentler walk sibling to Love Looks Better, feel like merely decent attempts. They don’t do harm but they don’t last either.
Successes are here of course. Truth Without Love, with its slippery shape and intimations of Erykah Badu, a graceful semi-ballad in Gramercy Park (much better than the country radio hit-in-waiting, Perfect Way To Die, whose BLM subject matter is not best served) and the elegantly floating Jill Scott (featuring Ms Scott herself) are excellent. Likewise the straight-to-the-heart Good Job, the simple, contained soul of You Save Me, and even the slight Me x 7 (where Tierra Whack brings some archness), make for repeat pleasures.
But then they are the ones whose message and medium are aligned.