[29 July 2011]
It’s very interesting to see how far Alicia Keys has come as a person in the decade since she stormed onto MTV and VH1 with the video for “Fallin’”. At the time one couldn’t exactly say she was shy, but she often came off more bashful than she does now, less ready for the attention of the camera. Over the past decade Keys has grown to accept her fame wholeheartedly, becoming a spokeswoman for all manner of charitable causes, a perennial Grammy performer, and mother of famous hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz’ child. So too has her music expanded from her homely, R&B meets hip-hop roots to include more ballads, more explicitly “inspirational” numbers and cleaner, more nuanced crooning. Through it all she’s become a much different animal than the self-proclaimed caged bird of Harlem’s streets who penned 2004’s Diary of Alicia Keys and Songs in A Minor, and this 10th Anniversary collection serves as an appropriate reminder of just how much she’s evolved as an artist in just one decade.
The first disc remains untouched, a pristine example of the marriage between mainstream production values and a singer-songwriter type R&B girl. Songs in A Minor was a great, personal album in 2001 and it remains so today, ripe with cuts like “Rock Wit U”, “Troubles”, “Butterflyz”, the awesome cover of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me?” and, of course, “Fallin’.” If you’re buying this Collector’s Edition, you probably already knew that and agree, which brings me to the bonus disc and DVD.
Keys and her co-producers were smart to avoid a fairly common mistake of anniversary releases of albums that have already received the collector’s/limited edition treatment at the time of their original release. Other than the UK edit of “Girlfriend”, none of the tracks from the album’s previous two re-releases are present here, not even the Neptunes remix of “How Come You Don’t Call Me?”, which is fine anyway, since that track always felt fairly castrated in comparison to the original. The disc starts off with a remix of “A Woman’s Worth”, which bears similarities to the one found on previous re-issues but replaces Busta Rhymes and Rampage (member of Busta’s Flipmode crew) with Nas, who delivers a hilariously off-key performance centered around a clumsy Rikers-as-girlfriend metaphor. Keys’ vocal feels equally uninterested, but it’s a weak point most of disc does its best to distance itself from.
The Drumline (one of those irrevocably average teen movies from Nick Cannon’s heartthrob days) remix of “Butterflyz” is one of the rare soundtrack remixes that works, trading its classical piano, teenaged girl at her window feel for a sexier, more seductive vibe that allows the song to grow up from its humble beginnings as one of the first songs Keyz ever wrote. A “Fallin’” remix lifted from the Will Smith vehicle Ali can’t promise the same sort of re-imagining, however, as it’s turned into a melodramatic little dirge complete with an orchestral interlude that doesn’t do anything positive for the song, especially without accompanying visuals.
The rest of the disc is mostly an attempt to expose Keys’ underexposed roots in funk music, whether it’s her playful re-interpretation of Mtume’s mega-classic “Juicy”, an early rendering of “If I Was Your Woman” (which wouldn’t be finalized until Diary of Alicia Keys) from 1998, or “I Won’t (Crazy World)”, which is the highlight of the original songs here. The disc closes out with three live tracks: “I Got a Little Something”, Keys’ token city-shoutout number on her first tour, a brief medley of classical melodies that feels about as superfluous and showy as the classical piano did on Songs in A Minor proper, and a cover of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” that sits somewhere between the original and Al Green’s revision while lacking the signature flavor of either. It mostly just sounds like a bit of a mess, if a well-intentioned one.
As for the packaging and DVD, the cardboard sleeve containing the liner notes and discs is pretty elegant. It features all of the original photography from the standard edition, re-appropriated into the new design. There’s no getting around the fact this new booklet is pretty nice to look at, but its contents wouldn’t be of much use to non-superfans as it’s full of Behind the Music-esque insider tales. It’s all pomp and circumstance but very little in the way of actual substance. This is especially evident in the section where Keys breaks down each song on both discs. Her positivity may be genuine, but in the written word her stoic enthusiasm comes off trite and insincere. The amount of times she labels a song one of her “favorites”—or, alternatively, “all-time favorite”—renders the word practically meaningless. When Quincy Jones and Alan Light give their reflections on the album, in some ways it’s even more unbearable. Light seems to draw connections between Keys’ debut and the collapse of the World Trade Centers that anyone who wasn’t trying to write a commemorative piece for its anniversary would have never dreamed up.
The behind-the-scenes documentary is equally protective of Keys, giving diehard fans what they think they want but coming up short of surpassing typical throw-in DVD status otherwise. Also included are a Chris Robinson edit of the “Fallin’” and “A Woman’s Worth” videos entitled “A Harlem Love Story”, as well as the music videos for “How Come You Don’t Call Me?” and “Girlfriend.” Again, worth it for fans but in the age of HD YouTube you can find that content rather quickly elsewhere. In the end, while the bonus disc of music is interesting at times and the packaging is beautiful to look at, I can’t help but feel like most of this Anniversary Edition feels frivolous in comparison to the album proper, and like so many others, simply won’t be of much value to anyone who’s not keenly interested in hearing the remixes, demos and songs that didn’t make the cut.