Photo by Paola Kudacki, courtesy of RCA
“I can hear Bach as soulful and Beethoven as soulful,” Alicia Keys tells me, deflecting the question when I begin to ask her about R&B. She gives the “H” in Bach the soft inflection of Johann Sebastian’s native German in a practiced voice before going on to add that Nirvana “is crazy soulful,” like she’s a cool older sister about to put a record on for me for the first time. This has always been Alicia Keys’s thing—the sharp, classic musicality mixed with a contemporary, matter-of-fact tone—but, still, here it is, for real, her telling me that “when you can feel a person’s soul, when you can feel the truth in what they’re talking about, that’s the thing.”
To borrow one of her go-to words, it’s ill just to hear Alicia Keys talk. It’s calming, much like her music—a steady world that, since her debut in 2001, has smoothed out heartbreak, anger, and confusion into something easier to manage and to sing along to. Keys has been, for the most part, fairly quiet over the last few years—although it’s still impossible to go for too long in New York City without her reminder to hear it for the city on “Empire State of Mind”—but now she’s readying her return, via an as-yet-unnamed album to be released this summer and a first single, “In Common,” out today. She'll be performing it on Saturday Night Live this Saturday, and she'll also be the first ever musician to perform at the UEFA Champions League Final on May 24.
“In Common” feels both of this moment and outside of it, a slinky, understated but dance-y single that, like all her best songs, packs in more depth than you’re supposed to hear on the radio, musing on the way relationships handle the personal imperfections of the people in them. It sounds heavy spelled out that way, but musically it’s light as a feather. Produced by Illangelo and co-written by Keys, Illangelo, Taylor Parks, Billy Walsh, the song’s easy charm hints at what Keys says is her most natural and purposeful album yet.
“It just came down like the rain, it poured down in this crazy way that I've never experienced writing before or creating before in a way that was just so raw,” Keys says of this album. “And that's what you feel when you hear it.”
Noisey: Where are you coming from creatively right now?
Alicia Keys: This has definitely been the album where I've been able to really write with the most purpose and the most intention. That's been a very different experience for me, to know what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to write about before I even started to write it.
And what is that purpose and intention?
To talk about what's happening around me, around us, as I see it: the stereotypes and the boxes that we either put ourselves in our we allow ourselves to be put in, kind of a mixture between both. Just really opening up that dialogue. To be able to talk about how complex that we all are. We're not just a blurb and not even really just 140 characters. And we're not just a hashtag either. We're complex, interesting people. And even though one might say ‘oh, she's a strong businesswoman, so she must be like this. Or he's a gay teenager, so he must act like this. Or he's a black boy, and he must be like this.’
I think it’s one of the biggest problems in our society right now, is all these stereotypes and these judgments that we put on ourselves and each other before we even know. Which is why so many people are being killed. You can't even be who you are before you're assumed to be something else.
Was there a specific catalyst that made you sit down and say 'OK, this is what I want to talk about on this album'? It sounds like you’re describing a bit of a political subtext to the music as well.
I think the catalyst was really breaking down the stereotypes. I created the space to talk about different things. And I think another catalyst was personally the welcoming of vulnerability. I think we all—but I can definitely speak for myself—put up some major walls in my life. And some major ways of being that I didn't even realize I was censoring myself to the degree that I was because of a desire to be non-offensive or perfect, which is just a fucked up word. It's my least favorite word on earth: Perfect. I personally think it should be banned.
We're all pretty imperfect, huh.
Yeah, and that's what makes it so good, that's what makes it honest and rich and beautiful. That's what we're working on and that's how we learn ourselves and that's how we connect to each other. I think that's actually what the single is about in a lot of ways: If you could love somebody like me, you must be messed up too. And there's nothing wrong with that. We make it such a big deal, as if you are going through things or you're feeling things deeply or you're confused or you're hurt or whatever, as if that's the worst thing to be. It's part of what makes you who you are and your experience.
Your music has always been pretty confessional, though. At least from an outsider's perspective, you hear it and you feel like this is pretty honest stuff.
Definitely. I wouldn't say it wasn't honest. The music is the best thing on earth. Because it was able to be created in this intimate environment that's a space to be whoever you are because no one's there except you. It’s more when it becomes outward facing that I start to become more concerned about how all that was said or how I came off in interviews or maybe not say things that might be taken the wrong way.
What was it like actually writing the music? The first song is produced by Illangelo. What was it like working with him and everybody involved in making the project?
A lot of the album, like I said, was created off of these really dope dialogues, like ill conversations. And it's the first time, I would say—this was a very communal album for me. I'm very, very private. I'm a private kind of creator. I'm a private writer. That's just my style. But this one I really wanted to bring together really brilliant, interesting minds from all different walks of life.
Just being open and listening to different people's experiences you can learn so much. We would do that for hours and then turn around and write these songs that were like ‘damn.’ You can't believe how they feel and how they capture that honesty of that moment. So that happened in a couple different ways. The majority of the album was created by four of us, which was myself, a crazy writer/producer named Mark Batson, an incredible writer named Harold Lilly, who I actually wrote a lot of my first albums with, and then Swizz. So it was the four of us from all different parts of the world, how we act as ourselves and how we express ourselves totally different.
What kind of things were you talking about that you say inspired these songs?
Your addictions. Women who desire to be loved and experience that as a material love over an emotional love or a physical love over a soulful love. There's so many different topics. Like what would you give away? What would you completely give away to start again? We talked about the limited number of days that you have to live, and when you look at it like that what would you do? What would you change? Almost looking at things in a tragic way. Just like challenging questions to ask, to explore even. Some of them you don't even know the answer to! It made for very interesting sessions, and it made for incredible conversations.
That also is what happened with Illangelo and Billy Walsh, which we wrote a few songs together on the album as well. We're also from very different worlds and different places, but at the same time we have so much that we relate to. Illangelo and I both like playing classical piano and exploring that world mixed with all the influences from so many different places. Billy is actually a straight poet. Like straight poet. And that was really an interesting way to create, too, with the poetry aspect and looking at it lyrically from that end.
That sounds like a great process. So traditionally you’ve been more by yourself working away on the piano and then you come in like ‘here’s my fully formed idea. This is it’?
Yeah, and I had to be like that because I had to earn it. I had to fight for my respect. People see a young woman, they see a young girl—at the time I was 15 years old, playing my music, writing it, producing it, completely arranging it—and people would be like ‘yeah, man, she’s not a producer, she’s not whatever.’ I had to earn it. I had to fight for it, so a lot of times I would be like ‘here’s the whole song, unh.’
A video posted by therealswizzz (@therealswizzz) on Mar 3, 2016 at 9:20pm PST
I want to ask about another big up-and-coming artist, which is your son, Egypt. He made big waves for that video of him making a beat for the Kendrick Lamar album, and then there was another where he was making a beat for Q-Tip. What’s it been like fostering his interest in music and seeing that as a mom?
[Laughs] It’s dope. It’s crazy. It’s fantastic. But he has no idea, by the way. He just loves it so much. He’s studying piano, so he’s learning so many things. He’s learning how to focus, learning how to get out the ideas and sounds that he has in his head. For me, that’s the most liberating. As I said earlier, I never had to wait for anybody to do something for me. I could always play it, I could always express it, I could always get it out. And I want that for him. To be able to hear something and know what he wants to do with it and be able to create it. I think that it’s really dope, and that process is how the Kendrick song came along and came together. That was totally start to finish his idea, that was totally in his head.
How did it end up with Kendrick Lamar? What was the story?
Randomly we were all at the Super Bowl, and when my husband was building with Kendrick, he brought Egypt with him. And Egypt just riveted Kendrick. He couldn’t get enough. They were talking about random stuff and guitars and whatever. I guess he was really taken by him, and he was like ‘wow, look at this little boy.’ Maybe he saw himself in him or the ambition in him or the whatever, just the innocence in him. He kept asking about him, ‘how’s Egpyt, how’s Egypt?’ And that’s kind of how it happened, like that.
How did you end up acting on Empire? What it was like working on that?
Lee Daniels has always been a good friend, first of my mother’s because my mother was in a lot of his early films that he would work on, so I knew him that way. And then him and Swizz became close, conversating about what they were working on. He had this vision to kind of talk about the complexity of emotions and love and how when you’re just kind of taken by a person and in the moment.
Sky and Jamal kind of have this little connection, and I thought that was deep, to talk about it. Even to go back to what the album is about, really breaking down these stereotypes. A lot of times we just assume so much, so it was really cool to explore how two people can feel deeply for each other no matter who they are or what their background is. And that emotions and love go far deeper than any outside description of anybody. It was just ill to explore that and think about it and talk about that. And I loved the process of working with him. It’s one of my favorite shows. And I love acting. If I could do acting more, I would. Any time I can taste it and touch it and do my thing, I always just get so much from it. And I loved how people responded to it.
Well hopefully a few casting directors read this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we go?
I’m just so excited, man. I’m so excited, I’m so liberated, I’m so completely free to be myself. I feel like that’s exactly what “In Common” represents and what it feels like and what it talks about, and I think that these next couple of months are going to be a joy ride. I feel like I’m going to have the most fun I’ve ever had, right now. Right now!
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.