From grooving on Chopin and Satie at the piano and listening to her mom’s jazz records as a girl to selling 12 million copies of her first pop single when she was 20, Alicia Keys clearly loves and understands a huge range of music. The New York native’s combined heritage of Sicilian, Scots-Irish, and African American also lets her represent a wide swath of humanity through her art.
Columbia Records saw that potential when they signed her in 1996 at age 15. But that record deal was not the dream-come-true she’d hoped for. Keys was unhappy with the label’s attempts to wrest creative control from her. They pushed her to co-write songs with in-house composers, whom she felt didn’t listen to her instincts. So she took control: she bought some recording equipment and kept her eye peeled for a way to escape her contract. In 1998 she met Clive Davis, then the president of Arista Records, and he was thrilled to buy out her contract and give her the artistic power she craved.
When Davis was fired from Arista in 2000, he took Keys with him to his new label, J Records. Her debut album, Songs in A Minor (2001) stunned critics and the music industry alike, quickly climbing to the top of the charts. Thanks to Davis’ marketing ingenuity, Keys had already contributed songs to some successful films – Dr. Doolittle 2 and Shaft – so her name was out there, and her audience primed. The single “Fallin’” also led the charts and was one of the year’s best-selling songs. Then the trophies started pouring in: five Grammy Awards, an NAACP Image Award, and a World Music Award. Davis had made a wise investment.
The fact that the opening track of Songs in A Minor is a hip-hop version of LvB’s Moonlight Sonata says everything you need to know about the many facets of Alicia Keys. The album draws on jazz harmonies, R&B rhythms, classical technique, and gospel passion. The only song that’s actually in the key of A minor is “Jane Doe,” co-written by Keys and Kandi Burruss, best known as a member of the all-female R&B group Xscape. Burruss also sings on the track.
With help from Kerry Brothers, Jr. and Kanye West, Keys produced her next album, The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003), which also raced to No. 1 and won three Grammys. This album is a kind of music-history lesson, with influences from past decades of American – particularly African American – popular styles. You can hear some old R&B tropes in the instrumentation, melody shape, and rhythm of “Dragon Days.”
It was another four years before the release of As I Am (2007), another No. 1 smash. Its biggest single was the Grammy-winning “No One.”
For “Tell You Something (Nana’s Reprise)” from that album, Keys worked with rapper/songwriter Novel, who has quite the musical pedigree: his father is Motown songwriter/producer Mickey Stevenson, and his grandfather was Solomon Burke, one of the founding fathers of soul. It’s a gentle song, full of longing, reminiscent of 1980s Whitney Houston.
The Element of Freedom came out in 2009, produced for J Records by Keys, again with help from the Kerry Brothers, assisted this time by Jerry Bhasker, who had made several albums with Kanye West. In an interview with The Times of London, she said she was listening to a lot of British music of the late 1970s and 1980s when she wrote the songs, bands like The Police, Fleetwood Mac, and Tears for Fears.
Half of the album’s tracks were released as singles, but among those that weren’t is “Like the Sea,” a complex amalgam of classical piano and rap that uses polymeters to surprise the ear.
J Records was shut down in 2011, and its artists shifted over to RCA. Girl on Fire (2012) is Keys’ first RCA release. As proof that Keys and her audience were growing up, the album and its songs were categorized as adult contemporary. Despite that, or more likely because of it, the record was a huge success on the charts, and it won the Grammy for best R&B album.
One of the album-only tracks is “When It’s All Over,” a gritty, freeing post-relationship song centered on jazz harmonies at the piano, with a lot of interesting layers of sound from a Moog synthesizer, also played by Keys. The song ends with the speaking voice of her son, Egypt, a toddler at the time, child of Keys and her husband, hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz.
Here (2016) was generally loved by the critics, and it proved an effective platform for Keys to express the perspectives of Black people in America. She shifts point of view from song to song.
For example, in “Illusion of Bliss,” she reveals whose shoes she has stepped into with the last line of her first verse: “I’m a 29-year-old addict.” It’s a song filled with empathy; Keys works hard in her lyrics to imagine what it’s like for someone who doesn’t believe she’s strong enough to crawl out of the hole she’s in, since that hole is the only thing protecting her from feeling life’s real pain.
Although Keys’ output of completed albums has not been especially fast, she seems to be writing constantly. Sometimes she releases singles not attached to albums, such as “Raise a Man,” from 2019. Drawing from the harmonies of gospel, soul, and spirituals, she uses a conversational rhythm in her language as a vehicle for this candid romantic lyric that develops into social commentary about a mother’s responsibility toward a son.
The most recent album, Alicia, was scheduled for release in March 2020 after two years of studio work. But, like many performing artists, her rollout was obliterated by the COVID pandemic. RCA kept putting off the release, teasing with a string of singles. Finally the album appeared in total in September, making an initial splash and then disappearing from the charts.
The content has deep social and political undertones, timely for late 2020. “Truth Without Love” takes on the inequality of “truth” in a society that applies different definitions of the word to different segments of the population.
Keys’ distinctive style here, which might be termed lyrical rap, takes full advantage of rhythm, harmony, melody, and poetry to lay down a powerful message. In fact, that’s not a bad way to describe all of her music.
Header image of Alicia Keys at the 2008 Summer Sonic Festival courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/DiverseMentality, cropped to fit format.