In all the pre-hype that Clive Davis helped to manufacture in the months preceding the release of Alicia Key’s debut Songs in A Minor, it was clear that Ms. Keys was being championed as the second coming of some singer-songwriter pop goddess. If India.Arie could be accused of using her guitar as little more than a prop, on some level, the Baby Grand that accompanied so many of Keys’s public performances, served her much the same way. When Keys became a ubiquitous pop force throughout 2001 and into 2002, it was easy to suggest that somehow there was a gap between the hype and the talent — singer-songwriters don’t sell 10 million records. Fact is, the camera loved her — and her post-mulatta looks — and in the video-age that is half the sell. No doubt this was one of the factors Davis considered, when Keys joined him at J Records. Two years later, the unrequited hype is now expectation, and with her follow-up The Diary of Alicia Keys, Ms. Keys has to live up to all the things, she never may have been.
Songs in A Minor featured several finely crafted, if derivative, pop confections that are a testament to Keys’s talents. Both “Fallen” and “A Woman’s Worth” were indicative of Keys’s significant, though often mechanical vocal talents. Given the significant drop off of quality songs after the first two singles (in defense many were written while she was still a teen), the obvious fear is that The Diary of Alicia Keys would be little more than Songs in A Minor 2 — the record industry is run by people with less ambitions. But Keys surprised everybody with the lead single “You Don’t Know My Name”, a slick, breath taking tribute to 1970s soul. Featuring a sample from The Main Ingredient’s (the purveyors of classic East Coast neo-doo wop) “Let Me Prove My Love to You”, the song is yet another example of the real-deal hype surrounding Chi-town producer Kanye West (Jay-Z: “you a genius, nigga!”). Logging in at just over six minutes, the song is the anti-pop single, as both radio stations and video outlets have been hard-pressed to let the song play through until the show-stopping mack-diva breakdown, that could make Issac Hayes, Teddy Pendergrass, David Porter and the late Barry White all blush praise. Choosing the song as the lead single is both a testament to J’s faith in Keys as a pop artist and an admission that “You Don’t Know My Name” is as good as pop-soul gets.
As much of any contemporary pop artist, Keys’s real artistry has been enhanced by the use of smart, thoughtful videos — clearly the case with Chris Robinson’s work on “A Woman’s Worth” and “Fallen”. Robinson (a legend in the making) is back on board for the sweet video for “You Don’t Know My Name” which features Mos Def (who consistently makes self-deprecation and detachment acts of genius in his acting and interviews) and was shot in the Peter Pan dinner in Harlem (the corner of 135th and Lennox to be exact — across from the Schomberg Center). The video’s house party scene is straight out of Cooley High and the whole working-girl digs corporate-guy could have been drawn from any number of “feel good” romantic comedies. On the real though, where skepticism has become the tool of pop critics with a disaffection for any thing “pop”, it’s difficult to remain jaded when hearing and seeing Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name”.
Unfortunately “You Don’t Know My Name” is the disc’s singular moment of brilliance. This not to say that The Diary of Alicia Keys is a bad recording — it clearly evinces Keys’s growth as an artist since Songs in A Minor, but rather the project is clearly laboring to be relevant to the current marketplace and thus suffers from a serious lack of cohesion. The ever visible Timbaland was brought on board for the track “Heartburn” and while the song represents a departure from Tim’s usual style, it is another indication that bruh may be spreading himself thin and is not as sharp as he was earlier in his career (his work with Justin Timberlake the exception). Much of the disc was produced by Keys with Kerry Brothers. “When You Really Love Someone” is little more than “Fallen/A Woman’s Worth” retread, both musically and thematically. Keys and company are to be commended for not making it the lead single, though I imagine there was temptation.
Keys strength has always been the mid-tempo ballad and thus the talents of Easy Mo Be and Vidal Davis and Andre Harris (of Touch of Jazz lore) were brought in to amp the tempo on some tracks. Mo Be is on board for Keys’s remake of the Gladys Knight and Pips’s classic “If I Were Your Woman”. The song features a chopped sample of Isaac Hayes “Walk on By”. Harris and Davis, surprisingly contribute the project’s funkiest and most hip-hop inflected track, also forcing Keys to push towards her highest vocal register. “So Simple” suggest that as a production duo, Harris and Davis are pushing past the now stagnant “neo-soul” groove that they helped to refine over the past few years.
Because Keys was initially championed as an “organic” musical prodigy, there were obvious pressures in the making of The Diary of Alicia Keys for her to make her musical vision most prominent. She is not quite there yet, though tracks like “Slow Down” (written with Erika Rose) and “Wake Up” suggest that she is damn close. This is even more apparent on the tracks that Keys solely produced. The sparse production of the title track “Diary”, which features Tony! Toni! Tone!, gives Keys ample space to work out her ideas. More impressive is the show-stopping “If I Ain’t Got You” (just short of brilliant), which harkens back to Evelyn “Champaign” King’s under appreciated ballad “”Don’t Hide Our Love” (1981).
Keys’s “You Don’t Know My Name”, “If I Ain’t Got You” and “Diary” appear in succession midway through The Diary of Alicia Keys. If the album had been built around these tracks, there would never be another discussion as to whether Alicia Keys may have been one of the most overrated acts of the past few years. Instead we are given fleeting glimpses of Keys’s real artistic sensibilities and given the current state of the recording industry, that may be all we can expect.