How Alicia Keys’ ‘Songs in A Minor’ Album Mastered the Art of Classical Soul
It's not an everyday occurrence to hear an unknown artist garner comparisons to a young Stevie Wonder, but such was life for Alicia Keys before her transformation into one of the biggest stars in all of music. Keys, who is now married to producer Swizz Beatz and a mother to the couple's son Egypt, is a talent that other artists are being compared to by those looking to predict the next big thing that will take the music industry by storm.
Her 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, may have been her formal introduction to the world, but the foundation for her illustrious career was set nearly a decade prior.
Born in New York City and raised in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, Alicia Keys, whose real name is Alicia Augello Cook, may have been the product of a single-parent household, but that didn't stop her mother, a para-legal and part-time actress, from nurturing her creativity, enrolling her in classical piano classes at the age of seven. After mastering compositions from the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, Keys would begin to tackle jazz during her time as a student at the Professional Performing Arts School, a period that would play huge part in facilitating her big break into the music industry.
Becoming a member of a three-girl group, called EmBishion, Keys would pique the interest of manager Jeff Robinson, who caught a glimpse of her talents during one of the group's performances at the Police Athletic Center league in Harlem. Sensing her promise as a performer, Robinson jumped at the chance to take the polished - yet undeveloped - songstress under his wing. "She had the looks, she had the talent, she had the personality. She sat down at the piano and played her own songs, and people would say, 'Come on, you didn't write that!" Robinson said of his protege in a 2002 profile of Keys in the New York Times. Graduating from high school at age 16 and as valedictorian, Keys initially planned to attend Columbia University, but ultimately dropped out to focus solely on her budding music career, which had begun to take off.
Garnering interest from Warner Brothers, but ultimately inking a million dollar contract with Sony in 1996, Alicia Keys seemed to be on course to be thrust into competition with the crop of r&b talent battling for chart position. But she would be relegated to the shelf as the label attempted to figure out how to present her to the public, contributing songs to So So Def's Christmas compilation and the Men In Black soundtrack while in perpetual music industry purgatory.
Unhappy with her situation with Sony, Keys would be released from her contract in 1998 and taken under the wing of veteran A&R Clive Davis, who would play a huge role in breathing new life into her career, signing her to Arista Records. According to Keys, the pair hit it off immediately, with Davis giving his young protege the creative control she craved.
"We were starting to create some really good music and something different and unique," Keys said of her musical partnership with Davis in an interview with Oprah. "He has this really cool instinct that he still has and he always, I think, has had where he knows which artists are the ones that maybe are needing to craft their own sound and style and songs and you just have to let an artist go and find that space. And I think he somehow knew that and saw that in me and really just let me find that."
However, it looked as if Keys' career had hit a snag once again when it was announced that Clive Davis was leaving his position at Arista. But in a twist of fate, Davis would buy Alicia Keys out of her contract with Arista and tap her to be the franchise player of his new music venture, J Records. Soon after, the roll out of Alicia Keys' debut album, Songs in A Minor, began, with her management and label pulling out all the stops to get the world acquainted with their prized signee's unique talents.
Jeff Edge, former executive vice-president of A&R at J Records, admits that Keys' team threw the kitchen sink into exposing the singer to the public. "We knew that we needed to do grass-roots marketing and get her out there in terms of performing in front of people in every way possible, because it wasn’t just about listening to her record—to see her was to believe in her," Edge said in an interview with HitQuarters.
Culminating in an appearance on Oprah the week prior to the release of Songs in A Minor, J Records' campaign worked wonders, with Alicia Keys becoming a household name by the Spring of 2001. Having dropped her debut single, "Fallin'," which shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, holding down the slot for six consecutive weeks, Alicia Keys had all eyes on her when Songs in A Minor was unleashed on June 5, 2001, to the tune of 236,000 copies sold in its first week at retail.
The album, which includes material that was on the demo Columbia Records rejected during her stay on the label, would become the best-selling album from a new artist in 2001, selling more than six million copies in the United states and 12 million worldwide.
Songs in A Minor was a phenomenal debut album with Alicia Keys offering up 16 tracks of piano-driven songs that are quite sophisticated for a 20 year-old piano prodigy.
Beginning with the enticing intro, "Piano & I," which features Keys basking in the glory of finally completing her debut, confidently declaring, "I'm feeling more prepared for the world... and less lost than I once was," she jumps right into the festivities on a high note, delivering the infectious number, "Girlfriend," which does a stellar job of putting the Keys' mixture of hip-hop with classical vibes, and topping it all off with her feathery vocals. Produced by Jermaine Dupri, the track samples Ol' Dirty Bastard's 1995 classic, "Brooklyn Zoo," with Keys lamenting her insecurity of her mate's friendship with a close female friend, a topic that's applicable to an array of age-groups and demographics.
Alicia Keys then pays homage to Prince with Songs in A Minor's third selection, "How Come You Don't Call Me," with Keys doing the original justice with her inspired rendition. "Fallin'," the very song that caught listener's attention and put Alicia Keys on their radar continues her debut's opening hot streak. The sullen ballad features strong songwriting, with Keys' heartache bleeding from the page, made tangible with her impassioned execution tugging on the emotions of the love-lorn and love-struck. "Fallin'" is the main event of Songs in A Minor, but is rivaled by "Troubles," an intense selection written by Keys as a teenager, inspired by weathering the storms of the music industry.
Powered by tumbling drums, sonically, "Troubles" is one of the more enjoyable highlights on Keys' long-player and a precursor to joints like "Diary" and "Unthinkable" that would come later on down the line. Songs in A Minor may revolve around more subdued fare, but "Rock Wit U" catches Keys getting loose, maneuvering atop a plush soundscape, equipped with conga drums, snares, and light synths. Tropical vibes turn to commentary on self-esteem and value with "A Woman's Worth," another tune on which the triple-threat shines, cultivating a masterful arrangement wrapped around poignant and thoughtful lyricism that translated to listeners, causing it to be an international hit.
The first half of Songs in A Minor is loaded with quality songs that are undeniably addictive, but the highlights are sporadic during the latter portion of the album. Tracks like "Goodbye" and "Mr. Man," the latter of which features R&B singer Jimmy Cozier, have their positives, but leave much to be desired, while riveting compositions like "The Life," which contains the urgency of a New York minute in terms of its sonics, are can't miss.
One positive of the deeper cuts on Songs in A Minor is that they reveal a bit of the woman sitting behind the piano, as opposed to showcasing her immense talent, a mission the opening tracks on the accomplished. "Caged Bird," which sees Alicia turning in a piano-driven selection that embodies the sentiment of her debut as whole.
"We were 14 and we thought we were 19, you know,'' Ms. Keys said of her formative years as musician, the period during which the foundation for Songs in A Minor was laid. "I don't know if it's a New York thing, I don't know if it's a girl thing, I don't know if it's a combination of both, but the things that we experienced were deep and real and true and hard, in different ways. And at that age, your passions are right out there, so there they were in the songs."
Songs in A Minor would propel Keys to the heights of the music world, and is regarded as one of the definitive albums of this generation. The R&B chanteuse nabbed five gramophone trophies at the 2002 Grammy Awards, becoming only the second woman to accomplish that feat, including winning in the categories for Song of the Year, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song for "Fallin'."
Fifteen years later, Songs in A Minor is a classical soul masterpiece that catapulted Alicia Keys into a major influential music star of the millennial generation.