Songs in A Minor (RCA/Jive, 2001)
The Diary of Alicia Keys (RCA/Jive, 2003)
As I Am (RCA/Jive, 2007)
The Element of Freedom (RCA/Jive, 2009)
Lay It Down (Capitol/Blue Note, 2008)
Too many torch singers age in reverse. As teenagers, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were already middle-aged ladies, wearing blouses and insisting that girls need good role models; by their thirties, they were practically pre-natal, babbling baby talk and showing off their Hello Kitty collections. So when 19-year-old Alicia Keys started belting out her songs with all the passion and soul-searching of a precocious high schooler, she was exactly what that scene needed: a diva who acted her age. With gangsta cornrows and armloads of classical sheet music, she was an artist wholly of her time: a wordly New Yorker with a love of Biggie Smalls that never conflicted with her enthusiasm for Chopin. And yet, even with her endless energy for practicing scales, whenever she eased herself into vintage-style soul, she could make anyone believe she was as world-weary as Roberta Flack. For a nation of young overachievers, this was the voice of a generation – and it came complete with a powerful set of lungs.
Keys' debut, 2001's Songs in A Minor, crowned her the next queen of neo-soul. Personally ushered in by Clive Davis, she was performing on Oprah before the album was even released. Even as an ingénue, she knew how to make her vulnerability look like a strength. The upbeat groove "Girlfriend" – where Keys admitted to being jealous of her boyfriend's female friend – may be the most self-assured confession of insecurity ever put to a melody: "You say that you feel / I'm the best thing in your life… There's no reason for me, to even feel this way." True, she went crazy for the wrong man on her breakthrough hit "Fallin," but the effortless way she wailed the words with long, breath-controlled whole notes made you think she'd do it all again just to gather material for another song this dramatically tear-stained. Pounding on a James Brown-influenced piano riff, Keys was a homegirl Liberace; on "Piano and I," she even transitioned elegantly between Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and a melancholy rap beat. More down-to-earth than Erykah Badu, more ambitious than Lauryn Hill, and not even 21 yet, she was one minor who was becoming a major star.
Winning five Grammys and selling more than five million copies, Songs gave Keys commercial superpowers, but it was 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys that earned her some street cred. She produced most of the album herself, with a list of collaborators that reads like the guestlist at Diddy's birthday party: Kanye West, Timbaland, Easy Mo Be. Together, they wrote survival anthems that glowed with the warmth of old vinyl: Keys gave Gladys Knight some competition on "If I Was Your Woman," took cues from Isaac Hayes' thick funk on "Heartburn," and nearly matched Aretha Franklin's vocal intensity on "If I Ain't Got You." The soul was pure Seventies, and Keys' swagger was too, tailor-made for the sweet sound of a decade that believed in strong women.
While the rest of the Hot 100 world donned tube-topped glitz, Keys became the rare class act. On 2007's As I Am she got positively inspirational, espousing dignity, loyalty, and the importancemaking your man wait to get to third bass. Shouting out the DC Comics heroine hiding under her fedora, "Superwoman" was a feminist fist-pounder. And the cascading-synths kiss-off "Go Ahead" was an honorable act of defiance, forever immortalized as The Song Where Alicia Keys Finally Stopped Going Back To Her Loser Ex-Boyfriend. In a year when so much urban music swung between empty boasts and extreme self-doubt, her simple self-confidence felt like a revelation. Plus, her faith in her abilities was easy to share, armed as she was with some of the best songwriting of her career. Her Juilliard chops were steeped in Motown and Memphis soul, slathered in lacquer-smooth keyboards, delivered in a voice that was deeper, smokier, and way more likely to tell you exactly what it was worth.
By 2009's The Element of Freedom, this onetime prodigy had become one the decade's most reliable moneymakers, endorsed by an entourage of Hot Young Moguls - Jay-Z and Beyonce both appear on the album – and equipped with booming production fit to rattle the chandeliers at some VIP megaclub. There were anthemic stadium-rockers like "Doesn't Mean Anything," thundering stompers like "Put It in a Love Song," lots of heavy drums, thick synths, and ballroom reverb. Professional to the hilt, the album could have been a hit for any starlet with a gold AmEx – but maybe not for Keys herself. With her voice Autotuned and otherwise digitally manipulated, and her piano-playing buried in the mix, her big personality's a little squashed. For an album about freedom, she doesn't experience much of it – except between sheets on "This Bed." Hey, after a lifetime of singing about the moral high-road, even the Empress of Virtue needs to get down.
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