#277: The Diary of Alicia Keys, Alicia Keys
Sometimes I admonish myself for not being a Kanye fan back when it was cool. Well, I regret to say that I wasn’t really an Alicia Keys fan back when she was just making it. I’m giving myself a pass for it, though, because this record was released in 2003, and I was 9 in 2003.
I know little about Alicia Keys, other than that she is (or maybe was) a judge on The Voice and that she’s GOT the voice, by which I mean one of the best voices ever. I know that she sounds amazing on Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” and that she is shamefully misused in her duet with Jack White, “Another Way to Die.” Something I learned is that she’s a classically trained pianist, according to the RS blurb. “Harlem’s Nocturne” shows off those chops with a dark and brooding intro, like she’s proving herself before she starts to throw down.
Keys does a great job of straddling the line between classic R&B and slick contemporary pop, but nothing will change the fact that all I hear is a record from 2003. I mean, “Heartburn” belongs in an Austin Powers movie, and did you hear the layered Oh!s in the intro to “Karma”? And something about “Slow Down” felt distinctly 2000s to me, too — maybe it’s that weird needle-laser thing that the 2000s were so fond of for some reason.
But listen, being from 2003 is not a crime. Give it a chance, because talent supersedes trends even as it lives inside them. Keys makes some while choices here, like mashing up a Gladys Knight song and an Isaac Hayes song to create “If I Was Your Woman / Walk On By” to create her own sassy version. “Diary,” an earnest dedication to her lover, guest stars Tony! Toni! Toné! on instrumentation and Jermaine Paul on vocals, making it the most musically complex tune here. (Fun fact, Jermaine Paul went on to win The Voice in 2012.)
Keys’ voice is super cool — she’s able to do a huge range of tones and timbres, but she isn’t overzealous about it. She nearly becomes a different person on “Dragon Days,” hissing and giving breathy little roars. Is this the same woman who practically scats Packing his bags/Gotta go/Gotta go in “Samsonite Man”? She even has an alter ego named Lellow, who gets a feature credit on “So Simple.” I mean, the alter ego seemed to just be a tinny vocal effect, but still. A for effort.
At the end, the lyrics become intimate, like the last few lines of a diary before falling asleep. I really liked the tough-but-fair “When You Really Love Someone,” and “Feeling U, Feeling Me (Interlude)” is short but sincere. “Nobody Not Really (Interlude)” really did feel like a page ripped from her sonic diary, from the windswept piano to the theme of self-doubt. Maybe I’m invisible to the world. I hate when I recognize a lyric from my own racing thoughts.
This album spawned several hits, but only two I recognized. The first was “You Don’t Know My Name,” which was in some annoying commercial recently. It has a subtle chorus that drops her voice to its bottom register, unlike her usual climactic choruses drenched in vocal runs, and the restraint makes this a unique Alicia Keys song. But when she makes a lengthy phone call to her love interest — in the middle of the song! — I laughed out loud. No way they’d let Alicia do something that kitschy today.
The second one I recognized was “If I Ain’t Got You,” an utter classic with an incredible piano part that was written in the wake of Aaliyah’s death. Can you believe she almost gave it to Christina Aguilera? Imagine! I love Xtina but it’s almost always better straight from the horse’s mouth.
Some people believe that all art should be timeless, that you shouldn’t “date” it with trends or topical references. Me? I think that being timely makes art great. 2003 may not have been a landmark year in music, but boy, am I glad Alicia Keys captured it here.
Least Favorite: I’m sorry, but I got so embarrassed every time I listened to “Wake Up,” because I kept getting the lyrics wrong! Every time, I wanted to sing: When we gonna wake up/Baby/It’s time/To get lazy. That doesn’t make sense! So why does it feel so right?