New York — Alicia Keys hasn't felt completely free for much of her career. That may sound surprising, but these days the heralded musician is loving the makeup-free skin she's in and settled into a space of confidence and liberation.
That's readily apparent in her eighth studio album, "KEYS," which represents a back-to-basics approach for the classically trained pianist that heavily emphasizes the instrument that catapulted her into superstardom.
"I think it takes time to just feel good, have your confidence to learn, to grow, to have something to even share," said the songstress, whose album arrived on Friday. "I just didn't feel comfortable in my skin in the way that I do now."
The 26-track album is broken down in two sections: "Originals" which features many piano-driven songs, followed by the "Unlocked" portion which contains more hip-hop and four-to-the-floor remixes of most of those tracks.
"There's such a power to being able to be undefinable and have different sides of yourself expressed, but all based on that original place of the keys," said the "Girl on Fire" singer who produced on nearly every song. "That was so liberating because it felt like I'm in my lane and I'm just driving in it, you know what I mean? It was such a comfort to kind of come back to my homebase."
"Originals" features songs like "Best of Me," a smooth, Sade-inspired love song, while the melodic singing in the atmospheric-vibed "Billions" is more aligned with today's progressive R&B. There are also records like "Dead End Road" and "Old Memories" that most embody Keys' intentions, as the piano chords are distinct, and the records swell with soul harmonies reminiscent of Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight.
Writing on every song, the 40-year-old also summoned the pens of R&B legend Raphael Saadiq and acclaimed country writer Natalie Hemby who's worked with Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, as well as Lady Gaga. While the album is intentional in focusing on her masterful tickling of the ivories—as well as traditional soul music—there's also "Paper Flowers," a collaboration with country star Brandi Carlile, and the beautiful folk-styled "Daffodils."
"'Soulful' is the most beautiful way for me to describe music because that can be genre-less," explained Keys, who received a song of the year Grammy nomination for "A Beautiful Noise" with Carlile, along with a best immersive audio album nod for last year's "Alicia." "It comes through because you just feel that baring of a person's experience."
Mike WiLL Made-It, the hip-hop heavyweight producer known for helping craft songs for Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, was tasked with remixing most of the songs in an effort to keep the project cohesive and not disjointed from the originals.
It's been two decades since Keys debuted "Songs in A Minor" which would earn an astounding five Grammys and inspire Black and Brown girls all over to get their hair cornrowed in her then-signature style. Throughout her career, she'd add another 10 Grammys and sell more than 65 million records.
But despite her massive success and acclaim, Keys vividly remembers the days of feeling potentially manipulated by the industry and not always sure of herself. Looking back, she'd encourage her 19-year-old self to trust her gut.
"I would just tell her that a lot is coming your way and don't be afraid of it. Don't be afraid of your own power … people might try to make you feel like you don't know you so that they can control you, but nobody knows you better than you," said Keys.
"Just hold on to that instinct, to that pure, raw energy, to that piano. And to the curiosity of just constantly being the best version of you. And you're going to really have an incredible ride."