May 23, 2016


How Alicia Keys Ditched the Anthem & Got Cool with Her New Single

Dave Kotinsky/BET/Getty Images for BET Networks
Dave Kotinsky/BET/Getty Images for BET Networks

Don't tell me you haven't shot your arm toward the ceiling with drunken vigor, waving it in slow motion to the high-flying chorus of "Empire State of Mind," at least once in your life. You have. It's a staple of 2 a.m. bar crawls and the call-to-action for anyone soaking up the magic of their ambitious dreams with the boost from a Fireball shot. Even if you've never stepped foot over New York's city limits, Alicia Keys and Jay Z's "Empire State of Mind" speaks for anyone who's ever wanted to BE something.

It's anthems like this that have taken Alicia Keys' career from the piano-ballad goddess of the early aughts and made her into the inspiring radio star that she is now. Her last few singles have taken on the same formula: a blazing chorus, a heavy bass beat, and the confidence that leaves you knowing one thing for sure: Keys is a girl on fire.

But with the release of her latest single, Keys is falling back on the vulnerability of her earlier songwriting—best showcased in the tenderness of 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys—while giving it a sense of modern cool.

For a while there, Keys' singles did what worked for her. "Empire State of Mind" shot to No. 1 in 2009, so she replicated its formula with "Girl on Fire" in 2012. The song, despite its attempt to be self-reflective, came off as generic, with its everything-is-awesome attitude and vocals that were on the borderline of being yelled. With "Girl on Fire" and "Empire State of Mind" being Keys' two most famous songs in the past seven years, it was getting easier to peg her as one to belt her music for the sake of its motivational effects. Even "No One," her hit from 2007, had a chorus with a similarly slower tempo and the same soaring vocals. Not to mention that she douses the song with inspiring lyrics like, "I don't worry 'cause everything's gonna be all right." But inspiring can get boring.

In May, we got fresh Keys, delivered in the form of "In Common," a single from her upcoming sixth album. It's written by Keys, Illangelo, Tayla Parks, Billy Walsh and produced by Illangelo. It has no vocals blasting in your face, no pounding bass beat and no inspiring message. It's different, and you definitely won't be screaming this at 2 a.m.

Instead, what we get is a sultry tale of a magnetic relationship with an honest observation that most wouldn't want to make when they're in love:

We got way too much in common
Since I'm being honest with you
Who wants to love somebody like me?
You wanna love somebody like me?
If you could love somebody like me
You must be messed up too

The production is crisp and cool, and led by a Latin-influenced beat that isn't too heavy. Over mysterious bells, we get a breathy delivery from Alicia. Her signature keys have not left, but they have a slight delay—perhaps the best example of Keys tampering with her claim-to-fame style.

In the music video, she's taken on a flowing, natural look, opposing the structured, robotic choices of the past. She's bare-faced, letting herself glow rather than relying on the twinkle of "Girl on Fire's" metallic eye shadow. She opts for a head wrap, rather than her perfectly straightened side lob. The photography focuses on the movement of the human body, using black and white to illuminate the light and the shadows. Everything seems more organic.

Earlier this month, she performed the song on Saturday Night Live, smirking wildly as if she were revisiting an inside joke she had with herself. She was clearly feeling it. And people noticed:

"She looks comfortable and in her element," the first YouTube comment reads under the SNL performance. "Looks like she found herself. Welcome back Alicia! We missed you."

Indeed: Welcome back, Alicia. With "In Common," we have access to your diaries again... although we're still going to be using "Empire State of Mind" to soundtrack those special, whiskey-fueled nights.