Barely out of her teens, singer, songwriter and classically trained pianist Alicia Keys stormed the pop charts in the early 2000s with a mature-beyond-her-age mix of soul, jazz and hip-hop. Thanks to an extra push from an appearance on Oprah the day before its release, her debut Songs in A Minor (Number One, 2001) sold 235,000 copies in its first week. By the end of the year it had produced two Top 10 singles — "Fallin' " (Number One) and "A Woman's Worth" (Number Seven) — and was still red hot. Keys wound up taking home five trophies at the following year's Grammy ceremony, including Best New Artist, Best R&B Album and Best R&B song. Songs in A Minor went on to sell platinum six times over.
She was born Alicia Augello-Cook on January 25th, 1981, in Manhattan, New York, to a white mother and a Jamaican father. Her dad left early on, and she was raised by her mother, Teresa M. Augello (a.k.a. Terria Joseph), a paralegal and part-time actress. Keys' maternal grandfather was a Detroit radio DJ and actor who appeared in the Sixties TV series The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. When she was four, Keys landed a one-off role as part of a slumber party on The Cosby Show. By seven, she had become serious about music, studying piano and learning to play Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. Keys graduated as the valedictorian from Manhattan's prestigious Professional Performing Arts School at 16 and was accepted to Columbia University but dropped out of college early to pursue her musical career.
Keys initially inked a deal with So So Def Records and in 1997 wrote and recorded a song that appeared on the soundtrack of Men in Black. The deal never resulted in an album, but, by then, Keys attracted the attention of powerful music-industry mogul Clive Davis, who signed her to his Arista Records (which later merged with the newer J Records). Keys recorded two more songs for soundtracks, and then, in June 2001, released Songs in A Minor. The album rocketed to Number One and was well-received by critics, who hailed Keys as a neo-soul successor to Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.
Keys' late-2003 follow-up, The Diary of Alicia Keys, debuted at Number One and produced another batch of hits including "You Don't Know My Name" (Number Three, 2004), "If I Ain't Got You" (Number Four, 2004) and "Diary" (Number Eight, 2004). That year, she performed along with Beyoncé and Missy Elliott on the Verizon Ladies First Tour, and also headlined tours in Asia and Australia. The album — and a duet with Usher on "My Boo" (Number One, 2004) — earned her another eight Grammy nominations, four of which she won: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for "If I Ain't Got You," Best R&B Song for "You Don't Know My Name," Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for "My Boo." She also won Best R&B Video at both the 2004 and 2005 MTV Video Music Awards for the album's "If I Ain't Got You" and "Karma," respectively.
Next, she dropped MTV Unplugged (Number One, 2005), on which she and Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine performed a duet of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses." The album didn't produce any Top 10 hits, although one of the two new songs, "Unbreakable," reached Number 34. Although it was her worst-selling album to date, selling one million copies in the U.S. and two million worldwide, it was the highest-charting Unplugged debut since Nirvana's in 1994 and was nominated for four Grammys.
By 2006, Keys earned the attention of Bob Dylan, who mentioned her on "Thunder on the Mountain" from Modern Times: "I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't help from cryin'/ When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line."
Keys came back strong with As I Am (Number One, 2007). Selling 742,000 copies in its first week—the best first-week sales of her career—the album marked her fourth consecutive Number One debut on the Billboard 200 — a tie with Britney Spears for the most consecutive Number One debuts from a female artist. Keys took home two more Grammys in 2008 for the single "No One" (Number One, 2007): Best R&B song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. A second single, "Like You'll Never See Me Again" topped the R&B chart and reached the Top 20 of the pop chart.
Keys has sporadically appeared on other series including Charmed, in 2001, and American Dreams, in 2003. In 2007 she made her film debut in Smokin' Aces, and appeared in The Nanny Diaries later that year. In 2008, she starred The Secret Life of Bees, alongside Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah, earning a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards. Around the same time, she teamed with Jack White to record "Another Way to Die," the theme song to Quantum of Solace, and the first-ever duet recorded for a James Bond film.
In October 2009, Keys appeared on fellow native New Yorker Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," a love song to the Big Apple and the wildly successful first single from the rapper's Blueprint 3 album. Keys and Jay-Z performed the track at MTV Video Music Awards and the American Music Awards, helping to push it to Number One on Billboard's Hot 100.
The song's popularity didn't seem to help sales of Keys' fourth studio album, The Element of Freedom, which dropped in December 2009 and sold 417,000 copies in its first week of release, debuting at Number Two—Keys' first album not to debut at Number One. The album's first single, "Doesn't Mean Anything," peaked at No. 60 on Billboard's Hot 100. Many critics applauded the album's more mellow, low-key vibe and Prince-worthy synths, but the lack of a knockout single left consumers cool.
Evan Serpick contributed to this article.
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