R&B sensation's brilliant debut
Though her American success marks her out as the diva [I]du jour[/I], Alicia Keyes is worth much more than lazy pigeonholing or cursory attention. For a start, like Aretha Franklin before her, 20-year-old Keys is both a gorgeously expressive singer and a great piano player. Unlike Aretha, she writes or co-writes most of the songs on this album, as well as pitching in with production duties. Only Beyoncé can touch her in the soul arena, and Alicia is more beautiful and affecting, and set to be a star of perhaps even greater stature.
‘Songs In A Minor’ is naively ambitious, overlong and contains one shit ballad called (as all shit ballads are) ‘Goodbye’. More than this, the coterie of way-cool associates (Jermaine Dupri, Kandi, Brian McKnight) she’s gathered round her pull Keys in different directions: on ‘Lovin’ U’ she’s The Supremes, on ‘Life’ it’s Sade; on ‘Mr Man’ she’s even doing the Latino thing. Like the analogous ‘Who Is Jill Scott?’, it’s a record of glorious parts that are just too weighty, too emotionally complex and rich to hang together well as a whole. But then, as its title suggests, it’s a collection, a compilation of moments from the five years of Alicia’s life it’s taken to complete. Taken as a kind of ‘greatest hits’ so far, it’s almost faultless.
Opener ‘Piano & I’ recalls the Shangri-La’s ‘Past, Present And Future’ (not lyrically, we might add), already hinting that Keys has far more in tune with the independent women of the ’60s and ’70s than the machine beat bling-blingers of today. Which isn’t to say this is a retro record – the rhythmic punch of ‘Girlfriend’ is powered by awesome hip-hop beats – but the vibe is defiantly orchestral, as evidenced on the Isaac Hayes-helmed shimmer of ‘Rock Wit You’, the gospel-tinged ‘A Woman’s Worth’ and the Prince-penned ‘How Come You Don’t Call Me’. Then there’s ‘Fallin”, which makes you weep ’til you’re a dribbling, snotty wreck.
Such reliance on classic arrangements, coupled with the fact that Alicia is no flashy Carey yodeller, means songs like the stripped-down ‘Never Felt This Way’ and the Wonder-infused ‘Caged Bird’ stand or fall on their melodies. Thankfully, she’s got the keys to all
the best tunes.