The Diary of Alicia Keys
he problem with being anointed as the second coming is that, sooner or later, you've got to come up with an encore of your own.
No one knows this better now than Alicia Keys. When the once-prodigal pianist turned R&B sensation released her debut album, Songs in A Minor, back in 2001, Keys represented an understandable oasis of old-school chops and organic soul in a waste land of trend-driven pop trash, where sexual frankness outsold romantic subtleties and a few well-placed electro-bleeps were a preferable substitute to old-fashioned session-tight instrumentation.
Or at least that's what the old-guard pop-rock establishment would like you to believe, and so those eternal ear-to-the-ground tastemakers over at the NARAS (wait, so Fountains of Wayne is a "new" artist? So just who the fuck am I supposed to blame for Utopia Parkway?) bestowed six statuettes on the 21-year-old Keys, an across-the-board show of approval for a newcomer deemed to be the rightful heir to a well-protected, freeze-dried canon.
See, garage-rock newbies like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might inspire a combination of renewed affection and rehashed disdain from rock critics for their liberties with Television and the Pretenders, but to a significant portion of their audience, Nick Valensi patented those telegraphic proto-punk guitar hooks and Chrissie Hynde never even existed.
Not so for a label-professed "old soul" like Keys, with her foothold in the crucial graying-around-the-temples demographic that remembers Roberta Flack as more than a Fugees cover source and Chaka Khan as more than Kanye sample fodder. It's that kind of nostalgia-driven appeal that leaves Keys at an artistic crossroads on her sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys.
Seen as the natural torch-bearer to a tradition that extends from Marvin and Mayfield to Stevie and Sly Stone, it would seem that Keys need do no more than continue to remind suburbanites of a black music golden era, a suitable stand-in for fallen heroes and faded soul queens. Which sounds fine, but then consider what separated these icons from their since-forgotten contemporaries in the first place: singular personalities, melodic and conceptual maturation and an unfiltered embrace of radical sounds and ideas. Keys evoked the timeless and familiar on her first record, but a pitch-perfect recreation of someone else's sublime genius is still a creative dead end, no matter how dressed-up and reverent your unconscious tributes turn out to be (if you think Alicia's got it tough, where the hell does Norah Jones even begin?).
Also, what about the kids whose expendable-income millions no doubt helped push Songs in A Minor across the ten-times-platinum barrier, a still-substantial set of new-school swooners who found a kindred spirit in Keys because of her hip-hop chutzpah and occasional indulgence in piano-intensified poetics?
Well, Alicia's solution for now is to split the difference, to deliver 70s AM radio replicates for the quiet storm crowd while she continues to grow up in public as an awkward singer-songwriter in search of an individual voice.
With such a conflicted list of demands on her (still just) 22-year-old head, our next-generation soulstress can't help but compartmentalize Diary into cordoned-off sections of impeccably anonymous balladry ("Wake Up," "Feeling U Feeling Me," "Ain't No Reason") that Keys seems hesitant to taint with her metaphysical fumbling and uncertain lyrical grasp. Which sounds like a good thing, until that pent-up poetic impulse spills over on the obvious teenage tropes of "Diary" and the fantastically awful damsel-in-distress metaphors of "Dragon Days" (I can't decide if this one is saved or forever condemned by its bad-pun refrain, "and the days they 'drag on'").
For now, then, the best moments on Diary are reserved for when Keys uses that pure-strain soul as a springboard to allow us a glimpse at the outline of her nascent musical identity, necessarily heavier at this point on hip-hop braid-queen toughness than multifarious, genre-unto-herself mastery and sweeping sociopolitical command, both of which Keys still has plenty of time to develop.
"Karma" epitomizes this marriage of convenience, full of muscular horns and resonant with Alicia's effortless, emotive pipes, it's a swaggering soul showstopper that still communicates in hip-hop signifiers, from the classic-scratch drum break to the death-defying strings that seem to come straight out of the Wu-Tang Clan's "Reunited."
But that's just a mashed-up prelude to the album's best cut, the flawless first single, "I Don't Know Your Name." Lovingly layered in vintage piano, strings, and sweet nothings by Kanye West, the wall of soulful sound unexpectedly gives way to a spoken interlude in which Keys plays phone tag with a coffee shop crush.
In a flash, our diva-in-training transforms into downtown A. Keys, rapping to her would-be well-dressed man about spotting him from afar and hoping for an after-hours rendezvous.
Soon enough, Keys should be able to exert the same kind of control over her music that she already has over Billboard charts, middlebrow critics, and the cute brother in the corner with the hot chocolate. Until then, there's "Karma" and "I Don't Know Your Name." You and your iPod know what to do.