Even when she’s talking about her vulnerability, Alicia Keys sounds perfectly poised. She discusses the twin crises that produced her new album, As I Am, in concise, articulate nuggets. She’s rebelling against the “stone wall” that she turned herself into during the four-year run from debut album Songs in A Minor through 2005’s Unplugged. That was about “protection,” she says, but it got “to the point where I don’t even know what was wrong with me, because I couldn’t put words to it, because I was so good at being a stone wall. And it was driving me crazy.”
Exhausted and unable to say no to anyone, Keys decided she was tired of being superwoman (and wrote a song about it, too): “I was always holding up the building. Put it on your shoulders and hold it up, and staple it, glue it. But damn it, sometimes shit has to fall apart.” She realized that “I can’t be everybody’s savior. Who’s gonna save me?”
That question acquired extra resonance when a close family member fell ill, and the burden of care fell on Keys: “To see one so strong become so sick, and having to constantly be faced every day with mortality…It became my responsibility. It really showed me who can stand up when it’s necessary, and who can’t.”
She has suffered, she has processed, and she has emerged stronger than before; this is very much in keeping with the Keys appeal. In 2001, she arrived, almost fully formed, at the center of a commercially humungous Venn diagram composed of one part sincere neo-soul, one part Oprah-esque self-examination (she appeared on the show early), one part bohemian uplift (her tough Hell’s Kitchen roots), and one part American Idol brashness (the Clive Davis connection; a certain stridency).
Keys is adept at the confessional mode, at tracing an emotional arc while revealing few specifics, leaving space for the listener. (She’s funny, charming, and down-to-earth, and she conducts our entire interview in black sunglasses.) When she first started recording As I Am, the music that came out was “very strange,” Keys says. “The music was very harsh and heavy and black and loud. I didn’t understand it.” I would like to hear that music. But Keys, who describes her recording process as “diligent,” kept working; she was afraid no one would get this material. So As I Am is not going to shock anyone. But it will satisfy her audience and move her artistic trajectory forward just enough.
The musical landscape has shifted since Keys arrived. A generation of futuristic female R&B singers has emerged, while she’s still experimenting with Moogs and Mellotrons—the sound of tomorrow, circa 1967. This reverence for tradition, though, is no mere crutch. The best track, the Linda Perry–produced “Thing About Love,” is about Keys’s journey toward self-love, but the lyrics are general enough to reflect anyone’s romantic travails. As her piano rock and rolls, Keys unleashes earthy passion that does indeed sound “as if Aretha Franklin was to sing ‘Cry Baby’ by Janis Joplin,” which is how Keys describes her vision of the album. In a digital world, she is hopelessly analog; the thing is, so are most of the rest of us.