The Maestro (Vibe)
Years of training helped her weather some early-career doldrums. Now Alicia Keys has become R&B’s shiniest new star. Angelo Ragaza basks in her glow.
In photographs, Alicia Keys looks slight. In person, there’s nothing wispy about her: She is tall and generously built, with the presence of a champion fighter. Her speaking voice is husky, her pronouncements through-composed. Even if she weren’t one of the more interesting singer/songwriters to come along since Lauryn Hill, you get the sense that J Records honcho Clive Davis, who has taken Keys under his wing, would still have given her the time of day. “She is one of those rare people who is extremely wise for her young 20 years,” he says. “Yet she has innocence, energy, vitality and inner strength.”
That’s evident as Keys rehearses in a walkup studio in Hell’s Kitchen, the West Side Manhattan neighborhood where she grew up. Watching Keys work on material for her upcoming national tour with Maxwell, it’s clear why Jermaine Dupri—who met and worked with her when she signed with his father, record executive Michael Mauldin—calls her “a female Stevie Wonder.” She does not stand behind the mike and emote. She plants herself behind a keyboard and conducts, harking back to the great tradition of singers—from Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles to Diana Krall and Eliane Elias—who are also accomplished instrumentalists and leaders. Keys keeps her band and backup crew, all older than she, on their toes. When her second keyboard player holds a chord too long, she shoots him a look. When her drummer flubs the opening beats of “Jane Doe,” she shouts, “Count, Paul!”
To a fellow musician, her ear for detail, self-assurance and artistic authority can be a little intimidating. But later, heading home to Queens, NY, Keys insists, “I’m not aggressive in a disrespectful manner. People do see that I am a musician, and they respect that.” They may also respect that less than a month before this July rehearsal, Key’s first album, Songs in A Minor, debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 1, selling over 236,000 copies.
Keys has been singing since she was 4 and playing the piano since she was 7. She blossomed in a highly calibrated environment. Her mom, Theresa Augello, mid-forties, a stage actress, insisted on daily piano practice. (Keys’ father is a flight attendant.) Alicia attended Professional Performing Arts School in New York City, where her lead-singer talent was further nurtured. Now her vocal and compositional skills are striking, and her catalog of influences is vast. A classical pianist, she prefers the shameless romanticism of Chopin to the metronomic precision of Bach and Mozart. On the R&B side, she says, “I get into my Marvin Gaye kicks, my Earth, Wind & Fire kicks, my Curtis Mayfield kicks. And I always, always listen to Stevie, because every time I listen, I hear something new.”
Songs, which integrates those elements with youth earnestness, is an arresting debut. Its fluid, mid-tempo hooks and glowing acoustic ballads place her squarely in the sorority of Jill Scott and Sunshine Anderson, the hottest alt-soul debutantes of the new millennium. But while Scott has poetic force and Anderson a haunting, lived-in voice, Keys is something of an enigma. Her references to James Brown, Barry White and Rufus are so fluent, it’s hard to tell where they end and she begins.
But in some of her more reflective songs, a more personal artistry emerges. Several tunes, such as “How Come You Don’t Call Me...,” “Troubles” and “The Life” seem to sum up the last few years of her life, when a stagnant record deal with Columbia Records almost prevented the release of her chart-topping debut. Mauldin signed her to Columbia over two years ago, when he was senior vice president of black music. But when he left the label, Keys languished in development hell. “I think he had the vision for where she was going to be,” Dupri says. “Nobody else had that same guidance as far as watching over her project and making sure it was going to go down the way he planned—a real project that you have to take your time with. It probably was a sour experience for her.”
“It’s been one trial, one test of confidence and faith after the next,” Keys confides. But ask her whether she’s going to last, and the grace in her voice turns to grit. To her, “success doesn’t just mean that I’m the singer, and you give me my 14 points and that’s all. That’s not how it’s going down. I plan to expand, in every way possible.” As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Return to Samples of My Writing).