Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Caged Bird Sings: Alicia Keys’s Songs in A Minor

As I had said before in my piece on Adele, sometimes all you need is a piano and a voice.

Alicia Keys remains one of the greatest musical artists of the last decade, and it has indeed been ten years since June 5, 2001, when her landmark debut album Songs in A Minor was released to substantive critical acclaim and massive commercial success. 

The musical landscape in 2001 marked the zenith of the bubblegum pop movement, where artists like Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync regularly dropped albums that shifted a million copies in a week and sold out arenas. Since then, BSB have formed with their forerunner band NKOTB to form a nostalgic supergroup tour but have had limited success. Justin Timberlake is rapidly distancing himself from his musical past to pursue acting. And Spears is like a sad blow-up doll, mouthing words passionlessly. All sold well but so did Keys, who was one of the biggest-selling artists of that era and has since released three more albums, each one a multi-platinum best-seller. She writes for other established artists and has street cred despite her classical breeding. Sometimes, good taste and good sense truly prevails, in spectacular style.

Everyone recalls the first time they heard Alicia Keys on the radio. It was that pure, clear, soulful voice that pierced through the silence as she sung the opening lines to her first smash, “Fallin’”, a cappella. The reaction was absolutely immediate as everyone asked, “Who was that???” It was the simple clarity of her voice that first grabbed our attention. No one has forgotten that voice ever since.

Keys makes her voice clear from the beginning of the album. Its opening track “Piano & I”, is a clever interpolation of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata with a subtle R&B drum machine slinking its way in. It’s not unlike sneaking a Boom Box (remember those?) into a chamber music recital. “Do you know my name?” If we didn’t then, we certainly knew by the end of that record. As so many R&B artists at the time were borrowing influences from pop and leaning heavily into materialistic gangsta rap, it was refreshing for an artist to boldly proclaim that she gets down with classical music. Keys was the cool, understated girl in your music class who could absolutely murder Lizst’s Liebestraum and ride her bike home to Wu-Tang Clan. In other words, she was no mere manufactured pop star who was told she could “sing” by a fame-hungry, frustrated stage parent. Like Lady Gaga after her, Alicia Keys has actual musical training and the talent to back it up. She writes her own songs, plays her own instruments,  and has the maturity and vision to make a lasting career out of it. Having graduated as valedictorian of New York City’s prestigious Professional Performing Arts School at age 16, it was evident that Keys was meant for greater things. 

 Ten years on, Songs in A Minor remains a classic work of modern music. Keys’s simultaneously raspy and silky voice dances with her piano throughout the record and her spoken-word intro on “Piano & I” is sheer genius, as it encapsulates in less than two minutes its creator’s influences. She makes reference to a two-year battle with Columbia Records, the label with which she parted ways due to corporate indecision, indifference and blindness to her talent, and says she’s no longer “as lost as [she] once was”. It’s a bold statement, but she says “I’m ready”. But are we?

Songs in A Minor is timeless, unadulterated, pure R&B that will sound current years from now. Written by a prodigy at a young age, some of the songs’ themes bear the hallmarks of heartbreak and young love. It was startling to hear a young voice channel virtually every soul great, from Stevie Wonder to Etta James to Aretha Franklin and especially Billie Holiday. The neo-soul movement of the early millennium brought richness to the R&B genre that included artists such as Jill Scott, Macy Gray, Maxwell and Eric Benet. None of them matched the continuing artistic and commercial success of Alicia Keys. What has become abundantly clear in the last decade, as Keys matured, was that she gained even more maturity and perspective and brought darker themes to her follow-up albums, each one sonically masterful and a testament to her ongoing status as an eminent artist. The yearning of “Fallin’”, although it does suffer from overplay due to its unexpectedly massive success, still captures the frustration and resignation of its protagonist. “A Woman’s Worth” is one of the all-time great, but never sentimental or obvious, female empowerment anthems. And “Rock Wit U” still sounds like the greatest funk record Stevie Wonder never recorded.
The music industry sat up and took notice. Songs in A Minor sold nearly a quarter-million copies in its first week of release and at 6.2 million albums (twelve million globally), remains Keys’s most successful album to date. She earned no less than five Grammy Awards for her work, tying the record set three years prior by fellow R&B iconoclast Lauryn Hill, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year honors.

June 5, 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of the release of Songs in A Minor. Keys has been celebrating this landmark on her Facebook page. The Blogger will celebrate by simply listening. That's all Keys would want from us. If she's ready, so are we.