On the same day that fifteen-time Grammy Award winner Alicia Keys appeared at the Expo 2020 Dubai, her eighth studio album, simply titled KEYS, hit the shelves and streaming services. Released just over a year after the R&B soul singer, songwriter, and author dropped her seventh studio album, Alicia, KEYS seems to be an obvious sequel, just without the multiple guest appearances. Unlike her previous seven albums, KEYS is a twenty-six-track double album, creatively split into two parts, one titled “Originals”, the other Unlocked. Described by Keys as a Saturday and Sunday experience – where the first album is fit for a relaxing Sunday vibe, while the second, being a remixed version, is meant for a party-loving Saturday evening.
Last summer, Keys was named the Female R&B Act of the Millennium by the Recording Industry Association of America, and with the release of her first double album, admitted to the Daily Star, “I’m finally comfortable being in my grandness and greatness, it’s a homecoming. I’m so ready for this music. I’m not backing down. I know no one can do it like I can.”
Whereas “Originals” is a more ballad focus, piano-based album with warm vocals and flowing lyrics filled with emotions, “Unlocked” provides listeners with a different sound on many of the same tracks, with a more upbeat hip-hop tempo thanks in large part to the production skills of Mike Will Made It, who has worked with artists such as Beyonce, Kanye West, Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar to name but a few. Complete with guest appearances by Swae Lee, Lil Wayne, Khalid, and Lucky Daye, the twelve-song second album, which clocks in at forty-three minutes long, opens with Alicia soulfully tickling the ivory and serenading listeners before “Only You” drops into a pulse thumping beat that was mostly void on the first album.
“Lala”, the album’s lead single made its debut during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards. Featuring rapper Swae Lee from the rap duo Rae Sremmurd, the duo plays off each other on a track that is an eclectic smooth blend of old-school soul and modern-day beats. When Lil Wayne opens the remixed version of “Nat King Cole”, it adds a much-needed bit of flavor to an original version that seemed a bit darker than expected.
After appearing on her Alicia album sharing the ballad “So Done”, Khalid returns to team with Keys and Lucky Daye, showing their soulful chemistry on “Come For Me”, which could arguably be the best track on the second side. While the six-minute track “Is It Insane” was originally meant for her 2003 album The Diary of Alicia Keys, fans are treated to a trip-hop version on the second album, one that could easily be the intro track to a James Bond flick.
When asked what KEYS said about her that her previous albums did not, Alicia told Variety “I really believe that KEYS says that I’m not going anywhere, that this is my lane. This is where I’m driving. I want you to join me in my space so that we can both be who we truly are.”
While the double album seems meant to display Alicia Keys’ range, sometimes it feels as though she has fans battling over which version of the song they prefer more, without the artist really committing to one of her own. Although the double album seems to be absent of a major radio hit, KEYS certainly has something for everyone. For those wanting to take a visual journey as to what motivated and inspired Alicia on her journey to make the two-part album, look no further than the short twelve-minute film simply titled KEYS: A Short Film.