Let the church say Amen, and Isis too: Black women are the past, present, and future of Black popular music, more about the business of becoming self-defined idiosyncratic artists and less about becoming industry-approved products by any means necessary. Since a Black man can now be branded, sold, and resold on minimal skill sets and swagger alone, we likely won’t see another bruh dig as deep as Marvin, Miles, Jimi, or Stevie in our lifetime. Bold, depressing, apocalyptic pronouncement, no doubt no doubt, but one made not because that brother isn’t out there. His name: D’Angelo, lost his mojo, maybe even his mind, realizing that his pecs were worth more on the open market than his golden, molten throat and church-honed organ chops.
Among the women, there are some capitalist toolsmiths for sure, but seen in total, the sisters represent a more diverse spectrum of observable talent than we now have among the African-American men: from Lil’ Kim to Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé to MeShell Ndegeocello, Jaguar to Janelle Monáe, Jill Scott to Cassandra Wilson, Keyshia Cole to Marsha Ambrosius, Imani Uzuri to Tamar-kali, Erykah Badu to Alice Smith, Ciara to Alicia Keys.
Keys is the most popular and successful Black Alternative Woman Artist of our time. Especially since our time is one where the most popular and successful Black women come from the side of the tribe variously prized, described, disparaged, and tokenized as high-yella, mullata, light-bright-damn-near-white. Yeah we’re going there, back to some School Daze–type sheet. Because if you think you can talk about Contemporary Black Popular Culture without talking about color pathology and image commodification in the modern soul era, you’re virtually ignorant. I ain’t no prophet. We all know that once again a Eurocentric ideal of African womanhood—the Josephine, Lena, Diana, pre-Bobby Whitney ideal—trumps an Afrocentric one on the high-tech auction block. Black stay back, brown stay down, honey-dijon stick around and all that. Nina who Aretha what Chaka why? And who said jack about hair? (That rag Glamour, that’s who.)
Fortunately for us, Keys comes from the side of the tribe that produced Billie, the Panther’s Angela, Kathleen, Elaine, Erika, and my mama, all of whom are hella Blacker on the inside than Akon is on the outside. The kind of Conscious sisters perfectly content with watching the world go all daffy over the marriage of fair-skin privilege to racewoman responsibility. A use-it-or-lose-it, work-it-don’t-jerk-it, to-die-for-the-love-of-the-people, spy-in-the-house-of-hate, spook-who-sat-by-the-door-with-a-shotgun kind of sister. This side of our history—our baggage, our tragicomic blues vernacular—is when and where Keys entered the frame. Fortunately for us, she can deal: got world-class coping skills, world-class cultural-ministry ambitions to boot.
About Keys’s current blues, let the church once again say Amandla! upon proof of her third album, As I Am—very much an album about the condition her condition is in, very much an album in the old-fashioned sense, a complete work: one you shouldn’t subject to shuffle before you’ve given Keys’s sequencing a chance to work its magic, its rising and falling arcs, its gut-punch-and-goose-bumps denouement.
Keys’s condition, by the way, is bursting with progression—musical and romantic, chordal and epistemological, sonic and psychological. She and her collaborators have given themselves over to channeling the ’60s and ’70s with a vengeance here. Kanye, Jay, Puff, Ghostface, and (blessed be the dead) J-Dilla have all, of late, pressed and sampled soul-gold into servicing neo-blaxpolitation machismo. But Keys, like Ndegeocello, is out to mint new classics by mixing and matching ’70s songwriting and production chops with 21st-century gear and eclecticism. On As I Am, you can feel and not just hear echoes of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Elton John, and Prince—melodically, rhythmically, and texturally. In the album’s well-constructed surrender to the seven stages of grief, there’s also a recall of ’70s women like Laura Nyro, Karen Carpenter, Roberta Flack, Carole King, Labelle. Nowhere more obviously than in the album’s bona fide contender to the canon: “Lesson Learned.” Co-written with John Mayer, the song finds Keys using harmonic devices that haven’t been heard in anybody’s Black Pop since the days of Flack and Hathaway: a little Catholic, a little Bacharach, a little country-western. A tore-up-from-the-floor-up break-up song that goes on infinite repeat even if your house is in order. Keys uses the best part of her alto voice, too, her husky-breathy low end, dragging us down the rabbit hole to mourn lost love and fresh, wet wounds; rising up out of a dank phantom-opera pit adorned in ashes and glitter, sackcloth and Blahniks.
Any song called “Superwoman” can’t help but have Moog bass—the song’s overt nods to Helen Reddy and Aretha notwithstanding—because Stevie remains the generous copyright holder on that concept. George Martin will likewise smile on all the Sgt. Pepper young Alicia keeps in her baroque left pocket. Herein lies the rub, too: Keys, no surprise, remains a developing artist, for all the growth on display here. Her voice as a lyricist, singer, and composer remains less evolved, complex, and distinct than her persona, presence, swagger, and heart. No crime there when you ask to be compared to giants. Most especially since she’s got a plan, you see: Learning this soul-craft thing from the ground up, by experimentation, impersonation, and collaboration. This generation has to work that way: no chitterling-circuit bus tours with geniuses, no Philly International studio workshops. Rough estimate: She’s probably about two or three albums away from her Innervisions, her What’s Going On, her Extensions of a Man. But she’s got the notion, and thanks to Clive Davis, the career-investment resources for r&d. Quiet as its kept, soul-music masterpieces are as composed as symphonies, requiring artistry off the technical and spiritual meter. Keys, eyes on the prize, isn’t afraid to wear pursuit and process on her sleeve. That’s why there’s songs here more like hodgepodge homages to Stevie than novel, personal extensions of her inner woman. (Though even patchwork Stevie can go a long way towards lacing a room with feeling.)
The song that expresses Keys’s Stevie-as-a-superwoman bent better, though, is actually “Go Ahead”: a ditty from that giddy, full-press marching-papers tradition of break-up songs where the woman gets over Holmes’s stank ass before the doorknob hits him where the pitbull bit him. Pragmatists note: “Teenage Love Affair” is a more energetic, fail-safe fallback reprise of 2003’s “You Don’t Know My Name,” because this is a pop career we’re dealing with here and not Pink Floyd’s. But while “Where Do We Go From Here” sounds like she decided a mash-up of Prince’s “Do Me Baby” and “Purple Rain” wouldn’t make anybody mad, damned if she doesn’t make it happen. Her harmonies? Sick, lush, and slick as black velvet. Her sense of drama? Ready for the Revolution. And As I Am‘s closer, “Sure Looks Good to Me” (her Linda Perry collab), is the kind of kitchen-sink, plain-chant, sanctified, passion-play power-ballad we thought only the Family Stand’s Peter Lord could deliver in the postmodern era. My bad—and I mean, damn, what an anthem. Big, corny, self-empowering, bromide-filled, and bountiful, just like we like ’em. Stand up, raise your fists, flic your Bics, and weep, muhfuhkuhs.
Final analysis: If you’re as old in r&b years as my dirty-dogg ass, you can’t help but listen to As I Am like we once listened to Public Enemy, calling every quotation in the air, from the first triad. Only dig this, recognize: Keys is doing ministry here. Ministry for all her generation and those unborn who can’t know ’70s flavor like the back of their soul-clapped palms. Call it revival, call it a soul woman’s work in the struggle, call it what it is: her right to sing the blues. And be thankful, godammit. Thankful because while my brothers in Black Pop revel, go for self and implode, Keys and her sisters remind us that while yes, there will always be blood—one more hairbrush morphed into a pistol in a pig’s eye (five pigs’ eyes, actually)—our world must must must be aswim in black-and-blue praisesongs, worksongs, torchsongs, naked and gospel truths, romance, reflection, redemption, sunshine, rain, and maybe, Family, a bit more
nguzo saba umoja ujima, kuumba kujichagulia.