Alicia Keys is a beautiful enigma
Published December 2008
Alicia Keys is arguably the biggest star in the world right now. The lovely 27-year-old singer, songwriter, pianist, author and actress won two American Music Awards recently and appeared as the special guest singer on "Dancing With the Stars." She co-stars in "The Secret Life of Bees," the currently playing film adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling novel. And she sings the theme for "The Quantum of Solace," the new James Bond flick that is also now showing nationwide. The ubiquitous Keys is a bona fide superstar with undeniable appeal and some natural musical gifts. She also happens to be easily the most overrated artist of the new millennium.
Just who is Alicia Keys? Part old-school R&B singer, part introspective songwriter, part serious musician (with some classical piano chops), and part hip-hop diva. Keys, under the tutelage of music industry impresario Clive Davis, became a show-biz untouchable after the release of her 2001 debut record "Songs in A Minor," which sold 11 million copies and got generally good reviews. Some critics hailed her as hip-hop's answer to Roberta Flack, while others even compared her to Aretha Franklin.
But Keys doesn't come close to living up to all this hype. She has yet to charm a song the way Flack did, and she isn't in the same vocal universe as Aretha. Keys has moments of vocal inspiration, but like so many singers of her generation she unnecessarily squeezes too many notes into each bar and doesn't always hit those notes. Keys has a nice-enough voice and can beautify a song, but too often she'd rather beat a melody into submission. She should just let the song come to her instead of chasing it around the block. But in this age of excess and "American Idol," who notices?
Keys' biggest drawback, ironically, is her confidence. She believes in herself to a fault. There's no vulnerability, no introspection, no admission or even consideration that maybe she isn't all that, that maybe she could be a better lyricist and melody writer and singer if she really worked at it. I mean, in an age when about 75 percent of the artists on top of the record and download charts can't even carry a tune, Keys' natural musical ability, combined with her physical beauty, have left her teetering on the edge of smugness, even though she still sings off-key more often than any superstar should and even though both her words and melodies are sometimes sophomoric and cliché-ridden.
Her latest record, "As I Am," on which she employs a hodgepodge of songwriting partners, is by the numbers. Her emotions seem rote, she uses too many predictable, amateurish stair-step chord progressions, and she never digs deeply enough to reveal any real passions or demons. Her ego is especially glaring when she sings, "Superwoman." On the tune, Alicia's backup vocalists answer her declaration with "Yes she is." Ugh! When Chaka Khan belted out "I'm Every Woman" in 1978, it sounded like a sincere, egalitarian anthem for all women; when Alicia Keys sings "Superwoman" in 2008, it sounds shrill and self-aggrandizing.
As for her singing on "Another Way to Die," the theme song for the new Bond film, it's gratingly inconsistent. Stripes front man Jack White, who wrote and produced the song, recently told MTV, "After a couple of years of wanting to collaborate with Alicia Keys, it took James Bond himself to finally make it happen. Alicia put some electric energy into her breath that cemented itself into the magnetic tape. Very inspiring to watch. It gave me a new voice, and I wasn't myself anymore. I drummed for her voice and she mimicked the guitar tones, then we joined our voices and screamed and moaned about these characters in the film and their isolation, having no one to trust, not even themselves. Maybe we became them for a few minutes."
White continued: "The Memphis Horns were there to help us out, along with some of Nashville's finest. Might be the first analogue Bond theme in twenty years, I don't know. We wanted to push soul into those tapes, and join the family of Barry, Bassey, Connery and Craig." Another overrated artist, White, who isn't in the same league as his rocking idols, either, should turn his giddy praise for Keys down a notch. Keys is a decent singer, Jack; 'nuff said.
Keys has also been bitten by the acting bug, but so far her performances have been passable, at best. She made her movie debut in Joe Carnahan's "Smokin' Aces" as Georgia Sykes, a stunning street assassin. She also appeared in the movie adaptation of the best selling book "The Nanny Diaries," opposite Scarlet Johansson, Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti. Keys recently signed a multiyear first-look film production deal at Disney. But she hasn't yet made much of a mark on screen. At least not on me.
In her short career, Keys has already won 11 Grammy Awards, 11 Billboard Music Awards, five American Music Awards, three World Music Awards, three MTV Video Music Awards, three MTV Europe Awards, three BET Awards, fourteen NAACP Image Awards, two Nickelodeon Teen Choice Awards, seven Soul Train Music Awards, two Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, one People's Choice Award, one My VH1 Award and more. In 2005, she also became a New York Times Bestselling author when she released her first published work, "Tears for Water: Songbook of Poems and Lyrics."
She's also a spokesperson for "Keep A Child Alive," which provides anti-viral drugs to the millions suffering from AIDS in Africa, and works closely with "Frum Tha Ground Up," devoted to equipping America's youth with the tools essential for achieving success on all levels, as well as "Teens in Motion," a non-profit organization created to offer teens the opportunity to develop their minds and bodies in a safe and secure environment.
All of which begs the question: When does Alicia sleep? Some of you Keys loyalists are probably drafting an angry e-mail to Turbula right about now. Before you send it, though, just know that I know that Keys has some talent, and despite her surplus of self-esteem she does seem like a caring and passionate person. If only she could admit she has some musical maturing to do. It's unlikely she will realize her full potential as a singer or songwriter, though, because she's already been crowned one of the pop's new princesses and seems to be wearing the crown without irony or reflection.
Perhaps in the enigmatic Keys' case, a star was born too soon. She should at this point of her young career still have the humility of a Vicki Lester, but instead she has more of the hubris of a Norman Maine, if not the self-destructiveness. Fame, wealth and popularity don't lend themselves to self-analysis or self-improvement. Alicia evidently believes all the hysterical hype that surrounds her, and that's unfortunate because she actually has enough musical ability to someday live up to it.