December 9, 2003

Keys Strikes Again
By Canyon Cody
Originally published in The Heights

When a British magazine recently asked Alicia Keys how her life had changed since her last album, she replied, "I'm definitely older." Fortunately, Keys proves herself more adept at songwriting than interviews on her impressive, soulful sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys.

Alicia Keys has quite a bit to live up to following her critically acclaimed debut, Songs in A Minor, which earned the 21-year-old singer more Grammys than she could carry. Not to be outdone by fellow mellow diva and reigning Grammy empress Norah Jones, Keys once again combines her amazing (though often self-referenced) talent as a classical pianist with her passionate voice and romantic lyrics to produce another beautiful album.

The first single on the album is the Kanye West-produced "You Don't Know My Name," which samples the Main Ingredient track "Let Me Prove My Love To You." The song's lush Motown sound explores the moment before speaking to someone that attracts your attention. The song features Keys as a waitress interested in one of her customers, played in the video by (former) rapper Mos Def, who has apparently abandoned hip-hop altogether in deference to his thespian career.

Keys takes it back to 1971 for a remake of Gladys Knight and the Pips' "If I Were Your Woman" and Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" for the creatively titled "If I Was Your Woman (Walk on By)." The song, along with "Samsonite Man" and "Diary," allow Keys' rolling piano to compliment her soaring voice, which she at times exaggerates until it borders ridiculously orgiastic levels.

Keys deviates from her usual romantic R&B ballads on "Wake Up," an unexpected criticism of the War on Terror. Two days after September 11, Keys told a reporter that she "saw lies" in the American flag, yet she posed for a magazine in front of a large flag three months later. "Wake Up" is sung from the perspective of a soldier's wife, pleading, "Bring my baby back home."

Timbaland brings more old school flavor to the album on "Heartburn," which sounds like a theme song to a 1970s blaxpoitation film. By working with more hip-hop producers, Keys' album lacks the consistency of her previous pure neo-soul album, yet she demonstrates greater versatility as an artist. She will hopefully never turn into just another R&B/hip-hop cross-over singer such as Ashanti or Mariah Carey, but her undeniable musical talent seems to indicate this will not occur in the near future.

So far, her collaborations with hip-hop artists have produced wonderful results, such as "Streets of New York." Unfortunately, the song, which is currently exploding on the mixtape circuit, was inexplicably left off the album at the last second, though it might be included as a bonus track on a reissue. The song samples the DJ Premier-produced hip hop classic "NY State Of Mind" from Nas' 1994 debut Illmatic and features new verses from Rakim and Nas.

Keys takes a few limited risks with her music and succeeds in producing another listenable album that, at times, borders on the beautiful. She better bring a backpack with her to the Grammys this year, and Norah better be practicing.

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