Back in May Alicia Keys penned an eloquent essay for Lena Dunham's Lenny Newsletter explaining why she decided to strip back, to remove her makeup, and tackle what lies ahead with a bare face. Reading her reasonings and how she arrived at this point was incredibly inspiring. As women we often view ourselves not by looking in the mirror, but instead we see our exterior, and sometimes our worth, refracted through the many lenses of opinion and comparison. Makeup is a woman's warpaint, the mask applied every morning in preparation to face the world—and hide her perceived imperfections from it. That Alicia Keys, a singer who's lived in the public eye—and been scrutinized by it—for the past 15 years would decide that she was done with this Kabuki, that after pushing past the acute self-consciousness, it was OK to walk out the door with your under-eyes unconcealed, is actually a really big deal. As much as the word empowering has been excessively bandied about and overused, this is exactly what her stance is. The 35-year-old drew her own line in the sand.
Released today, HERE is Keys' sixth record and her first in four years. As she sings on the bold gospel-meets-hip-hop of "Pawn It All": "See, I learned the hard way / Now I'm doing it my way… So I gotta let it all go / Start back from zero / Cos I give it up / I don't give a fuck."
Whereas normally she views songwriting as a private, personal moment, for HERE, Keys again pushed out of her comfort zone, opting to assemble a team of trusted talents, not only to record with, but to write with as well, working, as she puts it, almost in front of an audience. "I've never done that before," she explains over a crackly phone line, speeding through the New York City streets on her way to a radio engagement. "I'm more of an introvert when I write than I am when I record. I don't like people around me. But this time I knew I wanted to create this core group of people that would create the album with me."
To this end Keys pulled in collaborators she's known for years, many of whom also have close ties with NYC, one of the collection's main muses. Harold Lilly, Mark Batson, Swizz Beatz (her husband with whom she has two kids), plus Pharrell Williams, and Carlo "Illangelo" Montagnese not only influenced the album sonically, and sometimes thematically, but their conversations in the studio and elsewhere also found their way onto on HERE in the form of between song skits a la The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. For instance on the "Cocoa Butter" interlude, Keys is kicking it with a bunch of guys talking about female insecurities (one of them calls stretch marks "beauty scars"). She turns this back on the guys, what are their insecurities? (Variously, a chipped tooth and a bunion.) This then segues into one of the album's flagship tunes, "When a Girl Can't Be Herself No More," a nimble pop song set to rippling piano lines, while Keys addresses superficiality, expectations, and the no makeup movement one zingy couplet after another. ("Maybe all this Maybelline / Is covering up my self-esteem / Whose job is it to straighten up my curves? / I'm so tired of that image that's my word.)" Elsewhere, on "She Don't Really Care," with it's vinyl-dusted beat, Keys excels over an old school R&B groove, delivering an ode to the attitudinal ladies of the five boroughs doing their thing. This leads us to The Gospel, the short film (which shares its name with a song on the record) which Keys dropped yesterday as a prelude to HERE.
In search of female director who would "understand the New York experience," Keys was intro-ed to A.V. Rockwell though a friend. The young director was still in the graduate program at NYU, but her selection of shorts called Open City Mixtape—a mixture of fictional and doc—shot in NYC , along with the fact that Rockwell's a Queens-born "beautiful, young black woman," had Keys sold. The two began to brainstorm. The resulting film is a love letter to growing up in NYC (Keys has penned many), intercutting select songs with the stories of real New Yorkers, living life among the skyscrapers, captured in classic black and white. Some of it is uplifting, some of it grittily, thought-provoking. A fitting introduction to the themes that fire up HERE.
Noisey: The common thread throughout The Gospel are people from New York City talking about the one thing they wish someone had told them as a child. What's the one thing you wish someone had told you as a child?
Alicia Keys: It's such a good question. I wish someone would have told me when I was a child that it's OK to really live and feel your anger and your pain. You don't have to be proper, or try to be contained or calm. You can lose it and that's cool, don't try and push it down. Be able to access it because it's a really important emotion to be able to know.
Tell me about some of the vignettes that break up the LP?
Elaine Brown reads a poem called "Black Mother" in one. When I met her, that was a very big historic, personal moment for me because she I admire her very much, and I admire everything she's been through, and her power and her strength. We've become very good friends since then and that day it was actually her birthday. We had this four-hour conversation and that [skit] was from that piece. That piece in the beginning is a poem that Mark Batson wrote—and he's one of the original collaborators. He wrote this ill poem and it describes so clearly the many pieces of the process that became the album. It was just dope.
Before you wrote this record, you said you wrote down a list of things you were sick of. And I was wondering if there was a specific incident or moment that spurred you on to write that list? A kind of breaking point.
Yeah it was a breaking point that made me realize that I had become a stone statue in a glass house and I didn't like living in that house. And I didn't like who I was becoming, which was just very disconnected from my truth, and my clarity, even my anger. That was this moment where I realized I was doing all of this self-censoring—censoring stuff coming out of my mouth before I said it. I was thinking, "Oh wait if I say that who's going to be offended and how will that affect things?" I was extra, overly concerned about things that really, you shouldn't be so concerned about. You have to express yourself, and you have to be yourself, and you have to have your feelings, and you have to stand behind stuff! And be angry about stuff! You've got to vocalize it and verbalize it. It dawned on me in one moment where I was just like wow that's exactly what I've been doing. And also what are those things that you're over, you're finished with, and done with? I started to try and put words to it, which is very hard. That's what created that list and that's what then created these topics and that's what created these songs.
What do you want people to take away from this record?
I just want people to… I don't even know what the right word is, but I want people to, with full abandonment of their common sense, lose themselves in this music. And that's what I've noticed happens to people when they hear it. I just want them to feel in a way that they haven't felt in a very long time, or ever.
Many, many. But I'll probably say "Illusion of Bliss." That was the moment that was so raw and so truthful and the channeling of a lot of different illusions of bliss. And the frustration of what that is and that trap and how that feels when you don't have it anymore. So yeah, I think that one is one of the most vulnerable ones.
Given there was this gap between the last record and this one, did you feel at all apprehensive to come back and release a full length? Perhaps worried about the pop landscape and how that might have changed and where you'd fit into that? Or how your creativity might manifest itself?
I have made a choice that I don't want to fit in, I want to stand out. And I think that this particular record is definitely the first time that I have 1000 percent clearly executed my artistic vision without compromise, without trying to change something or bend to fit into something. To just do it. Because that's what it's supposed to be. And I'm so proud of myself. So proud of myself—and in a world, in an industry, that is so full of so much fear, and a desire to not necessarily encourage artists to be completely unique and different. You know what I mean?
I am winning. I am so proud of myself and I love what it feels like. Really! Really I do.
Recently you got up onstage to play Times Square, your city, and you brought in Jay Z, Nas, Q-Tip, Questlove, and John Mayer to perform with you. How was that experience?
That was absolutely outrageous! Nuts! I turned into an instant three year old, jumping up and down. It was crazy! I couldn't contain myself. Bugging, literally. It just felt surreal. Surreal! Am I here? Or is this just a dream. It was so dope. The connection was so ill. Just being in my backyard like that, right in the middle of the city like that, and all the visuals on buildings like that. It was just the most profound performing experience I've ever had.
I was also wondering about you connection with meditation, and how that helped you recalibrate and focus. And also how you found your way to that?
Unfortunately I'm about to be on the radio, and I have to finish warming up, but I love this question, so just quickly: meditation has definitely been a huge changer of my energetic field and allowing myself to commit to myself in a way that I never have before. I found it through a couple of different ways in, but it never stuck, which I think probably happens to a lot of people. You know it's like, "Aw I did it!" And you did it for a month and you're like, "Damn I'm not doing it anymore." But then I found my way to it in a way that felt very clear. Although it takes a commitment to still do it, it's fluid. If it's 10 minutes and that's 10 minutes. If it's 20 minutes then that's 20 minutes. If I can't commit 10 minutes to myself a day, then I'm playing myself.
Fair. Thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the record!
Aw, thank you very much too. And I apologize we couldn't talk even further because I'm really enjoying our conversation. Thank you for the support and I really look forward to seeing you soon.
Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.