On Tuesday, R&B icon Alicia Keys announced her new album Keys (out Dec. 10) that, as she describes in the captions of a TikTok, “will have two types of songs.” The “Original” version has “laidback piano vibes,” while the “Unlocked” version promises “upbeat, drums, level up vibes.”
“I describe it like a Saturday and a Sunday,” the Grammy-winning musician tells EW. “One [side], you rock Saturday, and one you rock on Sunday and it’s a beautiful thing. It’s an incredible experience.”
With fans finally getting the full picture of the concept behind Keys, with the release of both the “Original” and “Unlocked” versions of her single “Best of Me” out now, Keys shared more insight on the inspiration and logistics behind the upcoming double album she calls a “homecoming.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When and how did the idea for Keys come about?
ALICIA KEYS: The pandemic hit, and a lot of people would ask me when it first started, “Are you feeling so creative? Are you stuck in the house just creating everything?” And I actually wasn’t. I didn’t feel creative at all. I had lost my center and didn’t really know how to find peace. It started to get quite uncomfortable and frustrating because how do we all return to some form of normalcy, right? Obviously, we couldn’t tour and do all the normal things that we could do. So I did get right back in and I knew that I wanted to do this album called Keys. I’ve known it for years. It’s been ready for five years, this concept, and this album really focusing on the piano and being about the songs and the rawness. And as I started to create it, I realized that it was a homecoming for me because it brought me back to that center that I was looking for but couldn’t quite find for a minute there. It’s so grounded in songwriting and raw expression. I didn’t worry about production. I didn’t worry about anything. It was all about the piano and creating songs that made you feel. And as we were creating, it did actually flow pretty effortlessly.
And as we were flowing through it, myself and my engineer Ann Mincieli — she’s been with me for a long time and is a super badass magician — we started conversating about this concept about these two worlds. There’s so many sides to all of us, and that’s a lot of what I’m always thinking about, and exploring in my own life and music. So we started talking about putting together a whole other side of the Keys universe, and she suggested I connect with [rap producer] Mike Will. And when I connected with Mike Will, it was instant vibes. So I had this whole body of work that we were calling Keys, and I wanted to see what would happen if I sampled myself. Like if you found a vintage Nina Simone record and you wanted to sample it and give it another energy, what would it sound like? That’s literally the concept of Keys. So Keys is the whole body of work. And then inside of Keys, there’s the “Originals,” which is all that music that was all about the piano and that rawness. And then there’s “Unlocked,” which is myself and Mike Will sampling myself, and coming up with this whole other sound.
The version of Keys I listened to had the two playlists with the songs in two different orders. Will that be the case for the final version? How do you determine the different orders of the tracklists?
Yeah, they are two different orders. Although just to reiterate, because this is a new concept, the point is that every song has its counterpart, its alternate universe. But when you listen to it, you do happen to want to hear it in two different ways. The order that I put the “Originals” in is not the best order for “Unlocked.” And so it’s honestly two separate albums in a lot of ways, and we treated it like that. And in regards to the order, it just depended on what would be the best listening experience. That’s how that’s determined, but it’s cool because some of the songs are drastically different; some are actually close to each other, but there are nuances that bring them to two different worlds. And I love that you can just explore what side you like the best, and it’s going to vary. You’re going to flip flop between “Originals” and “Unlocked.” It’s fun.
I’d say “Best of Me” fits that description of subtle changes. With it being the first track with both the “Original” and “Unlocked” versions out, do you see it as a song that eases listeners into better understanding the overall concept of Keys?
Yes, it’s my favorite song. The zone on this song is so transportive. You’re just transported to a whole other realm when you listen to this. So yeah, both [versions] will be released. My first song that I released was called “LaLa” with Swae Lee, and that one was only the “Unlocked” version. And so people were asking, “Unlocked? What does that mean?” And obviously now we get to introduce them to exactly what it meant. And it’s true they have a similar energy, “Best of Me (Original)” and “Best of Me (Unlocked),” but when you really get into it, you start to hear the nuances in how they are different, and how there’s maybe a little more gentleness in the “Original” one, and a little more “Grrr” in the “Unlocked” one.
It seems like the project really taps into your producer mind. Is that something you wanted to convey to the listeners? Maybe help train their ears, and get them thinking about the way music is made?
I love that. I mean, I am a producer through and through, and ever since my first record, I’ve produced all my records, and a lot of times people don’t know that. People assume that because I’m a woman, I didn’t produce it, and that’s been a thing for me my whole life. So at this point I’m like, “F— it.” But I definitely always have my producer mind on, and I think that you’re right, that the way that this is all together a project, and in a whole kind of universe, it definitely encourages people to hear things and pick out what parts came from the original and what’s new. The more that you listen to it, the more that you uncover about it. And that’s a bit how I want this whole Keys world to feel, like it’s like an earworm. Like something that just gets inside of you, and you can’t get it out of your head. Similar to the way the live experiences are going to be. All of it is going to be quite magical and unique. Something that you get to peel away the layers to.
How do you want people to listen to Keys? Of course there’s listening to one in full, and then the other, but there’s also options like listening to the “Original” and “Unlocked” versions of each song back to back to spot the differences.
It’s really cool to see how the listener would want to experience it. Some people are going to want to literally go back to back, and there will be playlists that we create that will actually be just back to back to back, so that you can actually feel the difference right away. And then there’s other people that just want to let it ride out. Some people might just [play] “Unlocked,” like, “You know what, this is my mood today,” and [vice versa]. So I like that you can choose your own adventure. You could do [that thing] where you’re kind of A-B-ing it, or you can just ride out to what your energy is.
Are there songs that are exclusive to either side? For example, I noticed the version of Keys I got didn’t have an “Original” version of “LaLa.”
It’s true, there are a few anomalies in the mix that will be exclusive to one or the other. And that’s just how it actually worked out. I like that though, because I think that’s an interesting experience as well. Obviously, the majority do have a counterpart, but there’s maybe one or two that it’s like, “You know what, that just belongs on ‘Originals,'” and that’s just how it goes. It’s just perfect like that. You get to explore, and it doesn’t become mundane. It’s always unexpected.
One thing you did recently that really gave fans a preview of Keys is your YouTube series Noted. Would you say that project is an essential preface for this album?
It really is a preview in a lot of ways. First of all, it’s so amazing to me that there’s so much still to share with people. I’ve always shared a hundred billion percent of myself, I’ve always been genuinely authentically me, but I didn’t always feel so open, and understand myself in the way that I do now. So it really is a beautiful experience to share what has brought me to this place, and what are the pieces that I’ve picked up along the way that really are allowing me to be ready to release something like this Keys album. Because the whole album and concept is really an invitation to be your most unexpected. To be completely who you are without holding back, without dimming it down. To be extravagant, be over the top.
When we do our events, you come with your shoes on, you come with your fresh clothes on, you get yourself in a place that you feel like you’re ready to experience magic. And I think that I haven’t always been open to experiencing magic because I felt maybe that I had to hide myself in a lot of ways. And I think a lot of us feel that. We’re a version of who we are, but we’re not fully, unabashedly like “This is me. Take me or leave me.” And I’ve finally come to the place where that’s where I am. So that Noted series really was a peek into how I’ve arrived at that place. And now when you hear the music, and you come to the shows, and feel the energy around it, you’re going to know why. Because I’ve been able to let go of all those things that ever held me back.
Do you have a song that you’re excited for people to hear from either or both playlists?
Oooh, one of the ones I’m really excited for people to hear is a song called “Only You.” It’s like when I made that reference of finding a Nina Simone song in the vault, and just taking it and sampling it, to me “Only You” is one of the best examples of what this whole body of work is really about. The whole fusion of it all and the mixture of worlds so perfectly, because the original “Only You” is completely piano, and almost feels like a super classic song that gets you all emo when you listen to it. And then the “Unlocked” version of “Only You” is completely not what you expect. It starts out with those few chords and then it goes crazy. It’s very exciting to see how that complete difference is also available in this project.
As I was watching Noted, where you’re working on this album, I noticed you mentioned how your debut album was on your mind as you were making this. Do you see Keys as being in conversation with Songs In A Minor?
It’s definitely the culmination of everything, for sure. But I have to say, it really does connect me back to Songs in A Minor. And that’s why it was so serendipitous that we celebrated such a milestone with Songs in A Minor this summer. And here, on December 10th, you’re going to hear the Keys record really ground it back into that. That girl from New York City playing this piano. This is my home. Me and the piano, we live together. And so that being the foundation of this is so powerful, and yet being able to reinvent and reimagine it in a modern futuristic way, that feels still so organic, natural, and truthful, is a beautiful testament to my own journey. And definitely to our journey together, and to music. So it is connected to that. It’s almost like the 360. Coming right back, but in a more evolved, confident, unstoppable way.