'There was a lot of facing myself," Alicia Keys says of how she's spent the past few years. It's been an eventful period, including her marriage to Swizz Beatz, the birth of their son, Egypt – and, in 2010, Keys' decision to fire Jeff Robinson, her manager since she was a teenager, who was reportedly taking a huge share of her profits. "There was a moment where I was like, 'What are you going to tolerate?'" Keys says, sitting backstage at a Harlem studio after taping an intense performance on VHl's Storytellers. "Because people are going to do whatever you let them do."
Last winter at her New York studio, she wrote a defiant anthem called "Girl on Fire" with Kanye West collaborator Jeff Bhasker and Amy Winehouse producer Salaam Remi. Says Keys, "I was done feeling vulnerable and fearful."
"Girl on Fire" became the title track of her highlight-packed fifth LP: Dr. Dre gives "New Day" a drum-line-inspired snare stutter; Keys delivers a powerful, hushed vocal on "Not Even the King." The disc was mostly recorded in New York, but Keys also spent time working in Jamaica, where she wrote "Listen to Your Heart," an eerie piano ballad co-written with John Legend. Other partners on the disc include longtime collaborator Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, Babyface, Nicki Minaj and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. "He reminds me of Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye," Keys says. "The album has so much variety – there's crazy frenetic energy, and moments where it's totally intimate."
Last year, Keys went on a four-city solo tour to mark the 10th anniversary of her smash debut, Songs in A Minor. "I've been in this business since I was 16," she says. "You knew me then, but do you know me when I'm 30?"
Keys can't wait to hit the road again next year. In the meantime, she's loving her life at home. "I never even saw myself getting married," she says. "It's made me so much lighter, so much more honest. I have a partner that encourages me to be myself. And I wasn't always encouraged to be myself."
This story is from the October 11th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.