Alicia Keys’ alluring vocals and ethereal virtuoso has unveiled itself once again in her latest project KEYS, a continuation of her 2020 album ALICIA.
As an ode to her roots as a classically-trained pianist, the 26-track project is full of a “bluesiest, a soulfulness and a simpleness, that's really powerful,” the 15-Grammy award-winning artist shares only with BET.com.
KEYS is a double-sided album that comes with its set of original songs like “Skydive,” “Best Of Me,” “Nat King Cole,” “Old Memories,” “Come For Me,” and “LALA”, but she also amps up the sonics with an unlocked version of the album produced by herself alongside Mike WiLL Made-It that brings in features from Lil Wayne, Swae Lee, and Pusha T to vocals from Lucky Daye, Khalid, and Brandi Carlile.
The release of her eighth studio album flows effortlessly as Keys’ maneuvering between R&B, hip hop, and soul glides through speakers with relative ease. It's not only the melodies that lift listeners off of their seats but production by Swizz Beatz, Fred Ball, araabMUZIK, BJ Burton, Carter Lang, Jay Mooncie, Suzy Schinn, and Vron sprinkle angelic horns and strings that will get you lost between the lyrics.
KEYS wraps up 2021 perfectly as the singer-songwriter celebrates the 20th anniversary year of her debut album Songs in A Minor which snagged a golden gramophone for Best R&B Album at the 2002 Grammys. With a planned trip to Dubai on Dec. 10, 2021, Alicia will reveal the project in its entirety to the masses and will perform as a part of Expo 2020 Dubai’s Infinite Nights, which will be live-streamed on Expo TV on YouTube and Facebook.
Before she jet-sets to the other side of the earth, she sat down with BET.com, to unveil how her evolution has transformed into her quintessential new LP, KEYS.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.
BET.com: What message are you conveying on this new project, KEYS?
Alicia Keys: There's a homecoming aspect on KEYS. Obviously, I started on the piano, [and] that is a big part of who I am as an artist. I’m really coming back to that center. I've been saying that's my lane, and I'm just owning it. I'm driving in it.
The message is kind of coming back to yourself and really just being unafraid to be completely who you are, to be fresh, to be beautiful, to be sensual, to be powerful, and to be what you actually are. A lot of times, we're made to feel like we have to hold it back or dim it down or whatever we do, and so KEYS is really about being just extremely unstoppable. That's the invitation and I love it.
BET.com: Is KEYS a continuation of your album ALICIA that you released last year?
AK: Part of the plan for 'Alicia' was to come first, and then 'Keys' to follow. [These albums] really [do] show the full spectrum of me as an artist. I think that the 'Alicia' album opened the door for me to explore how many [other] sides there are to all of us.
There are these different pieces of our identity and who we are that we're not even realizing are there. So ALICIA started to open that door and this idea of multiplicity, this idea of diversity and layers inside of just one person is something I think felt very eclectic. It had a lot of different sonics, but KEYS is really about then coming back to who you’ve always been and just do that and be that and feel good with that
BET.com: What is the story behind getting Lil Wayne to be featured on your track “Nat King Cole”?
AK: [Lil] Wayne is incredible because he's just so powerful and he has all this longevity. [His] verses never fail. He always has a way to deliver a verse, man, [and] it’s so incredible. “Nat King Cole” is really about being unforgettable and being your most brilliant self. [One lyric] says: ‘Take off your coat. Take off your cliches,’ like put all the bullsh*t aside and just come as you are.
That song has this crazy dramatic string throughout and that just feels out of this world. And Wayne rhyming on the front of it is perfect. [On KEYS] there's an Original [version] and there's an Unlocked [version]. Wanye's actually on the Unlocked version, [but] on the Original version, you’ll get to vibe to the stripped-back version of the song. Mike WiLL Made-It and I produced the Unlocked side of the album, [and] it’s great to have these different people and energy that comes along as you experience the music. I love that Wayne is a part of it — it is actually our first collaboration we ever did.
BET.com: Now you have another song mid-way through the album, “Old Memories,” which speaks to how we have lost a lot of Black Excellence in 2021. Can you share some old fond memories of Cicely Tyson, DMX or Michael K. Williams?
AK: “Old Memories” is such a powerful song. It really is an AK classic. It does speak to how precious time is. You don't know when the time is coming and a lot of times you don't even know what people are experiencing or what they're going through.
[On “Old Memories”] there's a certain tenderness, love, understanding, and gratitude [that gives you] the ability to just be in the moment. Not [present] only for the memories that you have but the memories that you're making and creating. I just finished Cicely Tyson’s book, [and] I love it so much. Just to be able to hear her voice, her perspective and her beautiful life,it just makes me think about all the memories she's left us. Same with X, who is obviously very close to our family. It was such a beautiful experience to witness an artist who was so dynamic, profound and powerful. This “Old Memories” song is perfect for the holidays too because everybody is creating memories and remembering those we’ve lost and honoring those that we still have. There's a joy to that! Even though losing people doesn't feel good. There's a joy to knowing that you had something special with somebody and it never leaves you.
BET.com: How about any memories of Virgil Abloh, given his recent passing?
AK: I didn't have much personal interaction with Virgil actually. So most of my interaction with him was us seeing each other at certain events, but mostly it's just the creativity, just the ability to really be a unique force [that I’ll remember most].
Here’s somebody who has also unlocked [their potential] and could create in multiple facets, and hopefully [he] was unafraid of his greatness. I got the sense that he was very brave and very fearless in regards to traversing the industry It was the way that he is a staple for us and about there being no limits. [He stood for] the possibility of us being and creating and setting the tone and pushing culture forward. I was definitely so saddened by the news. I know that we all were. It’s something about when you get news like that you kind of hope at first that it was just a mistake or that it was one of those terrible internet things that won't actually be real. It grounds us though, to remember that again, every day is precious.
BET.com: What was the songwriting process like between you and Swae Lee for the song “LALA”? How did the video come together where so much Black Star Power was featured on the screen?
AK: It was cool. “LALA” is just so special. What a song! The vibe is just unbelievably impeccable and we wrote the song while in the Bahamas, which is pretty fresh [laughs]. I mean I can't complain!
I loved the song because it felt like you were right there with the incense and [you are able to] lose any tension. You can just allow yourself to be lost in the LaLa. There's kind of this dream state of being [that describes] exactly what KEYS feels like, being in this world where you're welcome here and you're welcome to be fresh.
You're welcome to be ‘cold, like on the rocks,’ which is one of my favorite lines that Swae said. It's just a G thing because here we are making it beautiful and getting lost in all the things that feel good for you. I love the voices, the guitars, the keys, [and] the whole feeling like you're floating [on the track].
BET.com: Being that KEYS comes out on the 20th anniversary year of Songs in A Minor how would you describe progression/evolution as an artist/songwriter?
AK: Oh my gosh! So much evolution.[I’m] just growing, learning, experiencing, and trusting myself [more?]. I’m recognizing that my instincts and my vision are just as important, if not more important, than anybody else and not to relinquish my power to anyone.
[Rather] to hold on to it, to keep it my own, and to recognize that I'm special and that we are special. It's important that you don't let anybody make you forget that. That's been a journey for me, and maybe I didn't look at it like that before, or I didn't fully understand it before. Over time, a lot of those feelings have evolved and so there's just a beautiful openness and confidence now!
The songwriting has always come from the same spot, that same heart, that same desire to express the truth. So, in that way, a lot of that effort has been consistent. Musically, I've definitely grown and tried new things and gone to new places, but this KEYS album is really about coming back to who you always were. Taking off anything that's been holding you back from really knowing that who you have always been, has always been amazing.
KEYS is now available on all digital stream platforms.