More than twenty years into her tenure as the poetic and canonical contemporary R&B singer-songwriter, Alicia Keys is still turning corners in her music career. The classically trained artist began composing as a child after being given an upright piano by a family friend, and at the age of 15 she signed a contract with Columbia Records under which she began work on her debut album – before releasing it five years later under Clive Davis’s Arista Records.
Now, at 42 years old, with nine studio albums and 15 Grammy Awards under her belt, Keys has repeatedly proven her ability to continually evolve her sound without neglecting her foundation as a classically trained artist amidst the rapidly changing music industry. . As musical tastes change and specific genres tend to wander, few artists alive have the awe-inducing staying power that Keys possesses. His impact is not only manifested in his historic discography – a body of work that includes early hits like “If I Ain’t Got You”, “Empire State of Mind” and “No One” – but in more recent years, evidenced for their latest efforts, the eponymous back-to-back records ALICIA (2020) and KEYS (2021).
For his next act, Keys is maintaining his own period legacy. After decades of working under contract, she became independent. After officially fulfilling the terms of her contract with RCA Records at the end of 2021, she surprised fans with her first Christmas album, baby santa, through the newly launched Alicia Keys Records. Now that she’s working on her own label, The Keys are considering the limitless potential of her next independent release.
“Do I find a newfound freedom in being a newly independent artist?” Keys reflected, chatting with Hypebeast after an intimate performance at Joshua Tree’s Kellogg Doolittle House celebrating his new role as the face of Hennessy Paradis cognac. “I do. First of all, I feel incredibly inspired. I feel like I haven’t even started to peel back the layers of what I’m going to do, and I see what I can do so much more clearly now.
The release of her contract freed Keys from the levels of approval and compensation required by the label’s strict management. The singer describes having arrived at a new “vision and the ability to understand how limitless everything can be”.
As a teenager signed to Columbia, Keys’ first experience with a major label found her constantly fighting the label for the freedom to make the music she wanted. She’s spoken at length in the past about having songwriters and producers pressuring her, not to mention the ageism and sexism she’s encountered, both in the studio and in meetings with record executives.
Keys finally found her place after Davis bought out her Columbia contract to sign her to Arista. The vast majority of the neo-soul album Songs In a Minor was written, arranged and produced exclusively by Keys. Going fully independent might be a whole different ball game than switching labels, but it’s something she’s been preparing for her entire career.
“That freedom is really going to impact all of my creative endeavors and just my life in general.”
“That freedom is really going to impact all of my creative endeavors and just my life in general,” says Keys. I find that sometimes there are so many cooks in the kitchen that it’s kind of hard to navigate your North Star and now I feel very, very clear about my North Star.
Weaving together blues, soul and gospel sounds, the ALICIA and KEYS albums laid the groundwork for Keys’ continual exploration of genre and songwriting, as well as the sheer aptitude of her vocals, which dip fluently into a deep whisper and, in just a few beats, then effortlessly ascend to dizzying heights.
Building off of the world created in these back-to-back releases, “the themes and sounds that I envision trying out on my next album, I really feel like it’s going to be something that sinks into you and won’t let go. ”, says Keys. And from what listeners can anticipate, she promises that “there will be plenty to sing along to.” Her approach to the album will also see her lean more towards “experimenting with different rhythms, different tempos, different energies”.
Beyond the essential physical freedom of becoming independent, Keys notes how the move has renewed her creative inspiration and empowerment as a woman and, through her brand, a business owner.
“I feel like I’m in another space to create,” she says. “I’m living in my own freedom, not just becoming an independent artist, but being the woman in the music space that I am now.”