Reviewed on this page:
Songs In A Minor - The Diary Of Alicia Keys - As I Am - The Element Of Freedom
Alicia Keys debuted as a hugely hyped young talent who was everything to everybody: she was neo-soul, she was contemporary, she was biracial and beautiful, she played a real instrument (piano)... You name it, she had it. What she didn't have, at least at first, was good tunes or anything approximating an original approach, but she made a great leap forward on 2007's As I Am and her 2009 followup.
A few years ago, Keys and Beyoncé - both born in 1981; Christina Aguilera, Mýa and Pink are slightly older -
seemed unlikely to catch up artistically to their commercial prowess, but their odds are improving.
(It still bugs me that Keys is promoted so relentlessly when artists like Nicole Renée - who's similarly derivative but a better lyricist and composer - and Des'ree can't even get a record deal.)
I caught Keys in concert in early 2004; that review is here.
Songs In A Minor (2001)
At the age of twenty (a minor, get it?), Keys nodded to neo-soul by incorporating a variety of retro stylings: "Rock Wit U" is a nod to Isaac Hayes's wah-wah and string-drenched love ballads, and Hayes himself co-arranged the track; the single "Fallin'"
is a 12/8 piano dirge which sounds suspiciously like James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World."
Jermaine Dupri adds hip hop soul currency to "Girlfriend," which he produced.
Her voice is exceptionally flexible - she does perfect imitations of Erykah Badu's nasal croon ("Troubles"),
and Prince's falsetto belt (a cover of his "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?," identical except for an
annoying metronomic drum part).
But not only is there nothing original in her approach, her songwriting just isn't very good, apart from the gorgeous, stripped-down
Mostly it's just pleasant tunes with trivial lyrics - the Babyface-style ballad "Goodbye," the
"Natural Woman"/"Vanishing" clone "Lovin U."
The Diary Of Alicia Keys (2003)
This time Keys cuts back on all the imitations and genre dabbling, focusing on one coherent approach. Unfortunately, it's a
very dull one: slow hip hop drum loops, hackneyed romance lyrics ("Heartburn," a shockingly routine Timbaland contribution), and a little pseudoclassical piano ("Harlem's Nocturne").
Largely written and produced by Keys, frequently in collaboration with Kerry Brothers Jr., who hooked
up most of the backing tracks; other co-producers include Kanye West, Dwayne Wiggins,
Rich Harrison, Kumasi, Andre Harris and Vidal Davis.
Several of the songs are catchy enough - though none are exceptional - but despite her facility, at this point in her career Keys lacked vulnerability: a fatal
weakness as a soul singer. Even the song that's supposed to show her as a tongue-tied and lovestruck Everywoman
(the leadoff single "You Don't Know My Name") ends with Keys reeling in her man with a confident line of patter worthy of
Barry White, and she's completely unable to convey the desperation required by "If I Ain't Got You," let alone her sluggish
cover of the Gladys Knight hit "If I Were Your Woman." So you end up with a long string of
mediocre, insincere ballads, and that's not my idea of a good time.
Still, I shouldn't complain: you pay money to listen to somebody's diary, you deserve what you get.
Mostly a selection of hits from the first two albums, plus a couple of covers ("Wild Horses" with Adam Levine; "Every Little Bit Hurts").
As I Am (2007)
As you might have figured out, I'm not exactly a Keys fan, and after I heard her cop Rihanna's Caribbean accent on leadoff single "No One," I didn't want to hear the rest of this album. But I was rewarded for my critical persistence in listening to the whole thing anyway. Many of the tracks are reminiscent of 60s Motown - "Teenage Love Affair"; "Where Do We Go From Here?" with what sounds like a baritone sax - but without the explicit borrowings or obvious imitations that cluttered her first record.
Keys and Brothers (who co-wrote and co-produced most of the disc) also dabble in electrofunk (the anthemic "Go Ahead") and slow numbers ("Like You'll Never See Me Again," equal parts Smokey Robinson and Prince),
staving off predictability with tricks like loud live drums on a love song ("I Need You").
Of equal importance, Keys has matured as a singer, and can now bring the required heft to big ballads like the country-inflected closer "Sure Looks Good To Me" and "The Thing About Love" (written with Linda Perry).
The Element Of Freedom (2009)
Keys and Brothers extend their reach, using many of the same tricks as the previous discs - plaintive piano meets a big beat ("Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart"); retro soul (first single "Doesn't Mean Anything"; "Like The Sea")
- but also bringing 80s elements like upfront synth ("Wait Til You See You Smile" recalls Journey's "Separate Ways") and the Linn drum sound ("Love Is Blind"). She even throws in a Mariah-style inspirational pseudo-gospel closer ("How It Feels To Fly") and an acoustic piano update of her single with Jay-Z ("Empire State Of Mind [Part II]").
The disc is ballad-heavy, perhaps to excess - "Love Is My Disease"; "Distance And Time," a mellower retread of "No One" - but on the other hand that makes the upbeat numbers stand out more: "This Bed" is a Prince knockoff so cheerful I can't knock it;
"Put It In A Love Song," a scorching, stripped-down duet with Beyoncé, is one of the year's best songs.
Girl On Fire (2012)
Precisely the same approach as the previous Keys offering, with lots of mellow love songs ("Brand New Me") and a few uptempo dance cuts ("New Day," produced with hubby Swizz Beatz).
The tacky title track combines both approaches, with a simple-minded, endlessly repeated vocal hook over an ear-splitting, Billy Squier-sampled drum track. However loud or soft, fast or slow, though, the whole enterprise is notably lacking in melody ("Listen To Your Heart") - almost nothing holds your attention apart from a lovely duet with Maxwell ("Fire We Make," also featuring guitarist Gary Clark Jr.) and the retro weeper "Tears Always Win."
The distracting fake Caribbean accent turns up on two more tunes ("Limitedless," with a chorus conceit that smacks of Beyoncé's "Countdown").
Where do we go from here?