This week, Alicia Keys releases her third studio album and fourth release, "As I Am." The single "No One" is already topping many of Billboard's R&B charts and she's set to do what many of her peers have failed to do — put out her fourth blockbuster album in a row.
What makes her so special? What does she have that other artists don't? Her strength is her range. In the often fickle world of modern hip-hop and R&B, she's really a perfect storm of a performer.
From the start, Keys set the bar quite high. She was Clive Davis' first real protege on his label J Records after he left Arista, when out of the blue she debuted at No. 1 with "Songs in A Minor" in 2001.
Her hit song "Fallin'" became not only her signature, but a modern R&B standard. "Songs in A Minor" also contained "Girlfriend," a rough and rugged hip-hop jam built around an Ol' Dirty Bastard sample. Co-produced by Keys and Jermaine Dupri, the track recalled the energy of Michael Jackson in his prime. It was the kind of song you'd expect to hear blasting equally from summertime pool parties and from passing minivans. It was the kind of song R&B radio doesn't really produce anymore.
Elsewhere on her debut, she proved she could make Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me" sound like something fresh and new, while adding her own dose of gospelesque inflection and rhythmic piano work, and on "Rock Wit You," she was able to effectively groove along to a very "Shaft"-like orchestral arrangement provided by Isaac Hayes.
In 2003, "The Diary of Alicia Keys" showed her depth even more. With the help of Kanye West's dynamic Motown-flavored production, she created her own old-fashioned classic with "You Don't Know My Name." The track's vintage vibe was purely cemented by the "oohs" and "ahhs" of a background choir that included John Legend among others, and by Keys' spoken-word bridge.
Also on that record was "If I Ain't Got You," a stunner of a ballad on which Keys' sound and vocal inflection recalled another one of Davis' famous proteges: Whitney Houston.
The Total Package
From record to record, Keys has firmly maintained her audience unlike anybody else. For one thing, she fits into nearly every subsection of R&B.
She has the sort of urban-bohemian neo-soul vibe of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, while the next moment she can bring forth an edgier New Jack swing. She can belt like Mary J. Blige. She can croon like Smokey Robinson. She can fit into any aspect of the genre — both old and new.
In addition, there's her skill at the piano. A longtime fan of Chopin, her last name is ever so appropriate. It's that skill that really separates her from the pack, thus making her the R&B alternative to other piano-playing female singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor and Norah Jones. Her impressive musicianship makes her the rare pop star hipsters can feel alright about liking.
Gail Mitchell, a senior editor at Billboard covering R&B and hip-hop, recently profiled Keys for the magazine. When asked about what makes Keys stand out from the pack, Mitchell said, "In the case of Alicia, she's the total package. She can arrange. She can produce. She can take somebody else's song and make it hers. She pays attention. She can infuse realness.To me that's the mark of a real artist."
That is the true core of her appeal. Think back to "A Woman's Worth" from "Songs in A Minor," and you'll find embedded in the respect-driven anthem concepts of "realness." ("A real man knows a real woman always comes first, and a real man just can't deny a woman's worth.")
When she says this, it is achingly authentic partly because of her image. There is an organic quality to her music. The instruments are real. The production doesn't feel like it was overtweaked by a computer. It feels honest even when she's working with drum loops. Not only does this probably help her sell well, but it earns her a great deal of respect.
In 2005, Keys released her "Unplugged" record chronicling her appearance on the legendary on-again/off-again MTV series. She works in the old Motown mold of actually being backed by a tight band. Lauryn Hill did the same thing a few years ago, and one can imagine Wyclef Jean or Badu on the show, but Keys's piano prodigy status and soulful voice are suited for the a live venue.
That album became Keys' third No. 1 record in a row. In addition, it added another interesting cover to her repertoire, with the inclusion of her take on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses," which she turned into a duet with Maroon 5's Adam Levine.
If It Ain't Broke …
So, given the fact that her first three releases all landed at No. 1, stakes are high for "As I Am" to do well, too. A look at the title and one can tell that there hasn't been any major gearshift imagewise. Why mess with something that isn't broken?
As an album, it's got a lot of the same elements present on the other records: the raging, hard-edged anthem of a woman done wrong on "Go Ahead"; the uplifting ballad of feminine pride on the Linda Perry collaboration "Superwoman"; the earthy intimate moments of "Lesson Learned" featuring John Mayer; and a nice helping of smooth-loving R&B track turned big-time belter ("The Thing About Love.")
"As I Am" will likely add more hits to Keys' growing canon. I can imagine the closing ballad, "Sure Looks Good to Me," turning out to be the album's high watermark.
Only time will tell if "As I Am" repeats the success of its predecessors, but one thing seems certain — Keys is here to stay, building a legend based on honest talent and hard work.
She's successful because she's able to get fans from a very wide pool. She appeals to casual pop fans just as much as she appeals to hard-core R&B enthusiasts. Radio is completely behind her, something that might help to also explain her steady sales flow, and set her apart from her dwindling peers like Jones.
Twenty years from now Keys' records will be respected classics.