KEYS Is A Mournful But Hopeful Look Forward

Released on December 10th, 2021, Alicia Key’s new album KEYS is a chronicle of loss and overcoming that speaks volumes to a world that’s been rocked by an uncertain future. While the tone is overall melancholy, its companion album Unlocked further shows fans that it’s possible to put a hopeful spin on anything, as each song gets an upbeat, hip-hop remix.

Portraying Unlocked as the hopeful future of the past that KEYS mourns and honours, Keys displays the two albums as companion pieces. 

Alicia Keys - KEYS: A Short Film

In her question, Keys asks the audience “do we stay Original?” If Original is a shorthand for the songs on KEYS, then Unlocked must represent an evolution of the artist’s and the listeners’ past selves.

After the album’s debut, Keys released a short film on her YouTube titled, “KEYS: A Short Film,” which juxtaposes one of the hard-hitting songs from KEYS with its rival from Unlocked, while presumably the younger Alicia Keys watches and is inspired by a promising future. These selves and each representation honour each other and show the past and future as coexisting and co-dependent.

A fan favourite on the album, “Old Memories” is one of a few songs that dwell in the past, remarking on how hard it is to forget both the good and the bad memories of lost loved ones. Yet, on her Twitter account, the artist describes the song as one honouring those that came before.

The song encompasses the whole of mourning and overcoming. The New York Times describes its remix in Unlocked as a shift from regret toward resilience.

“Old Memories” isn’t the only song pulling heartstrings, honouring the past while showing a determination for the future. Another fan favourite, “Paper Flowers,” describes the inevitability of loss through the lens of someone determined to make the best of it. As an explanation for the song, a fan of Keys describes it as depicting alchemy, a way to “make something beautiful out of sometimes challenging circumstances.”

Challenging circumstances have been the norm for the past two years, making “Paper Flowers” and the album as a whole an anthem for a generation afflicted by fear of the future. One fan describes KEYS and Unlocked as the two best albums of the pandemic.

The album is raw, melancholy, and haunted, but more than those things, it is a reminder that better days are ahead.

Winter is over. Here come the daffodils,” Keys writes in “Daffodils,” one of several genre-bending songs on KEYS

The album not only speaks to the plight of listeners hoping to evolve, but it has made a name for itself in the news as an epic undertaking. Rolling Stone called it “deeply respectful but a little subversive.” 

And subversive it is, not only as an experiment with and statement on the production side of music but in its blending of tones and eras. From borderline folk in “Daffodils,” to a 90s soul call-back in “Love When You Call My Name,” genre is a mere guideline, driven by piano and intimacy throughout the album.

If listeners and readers can take away one message from KEYS and Unlocked, it should be that a person’s past can’t be erased, but it isn’t something to run from. The pain, loss, and isolation of years past and of the current day are of no consequence to a person who is determined enough to rewrite it into something more upbeat.

Anyone can sit down with their emotions like Alicia Keys does with the Originals, and they can stand alone. However, everyone has the power to remix their challenges into something new and daring.

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