Saturday, December 26, 2009


Very few artists seemed able to balance artistry and commerce in the '00s the way Alicia Keys did. From her debut, 2001's Songs In A Minor, she hit the scene with a great confidence that you don't usually see in new artists. Fluent in hip-hop and R&B, she had no problem with citing her classical piano training. No problem with expressing her love for Tupac, Biggie and Jay-Z, while never afraid to call out hip-hop on its misogyny. She never seemed to feel any "guilt" about her fame and fortune, but also was really active in raising funds and awareness for causes that she believed in. Beautiful without getting slutted out to sell records.  Political without alienating fans with her politics. She even moved into acting without losing any artistic credibility. And like Bob Dylan said when Rolling Stone asked him why he name-dropped Alicia in his song "Thunder On The Mountain" from Modern Times, "There's nothing about that girl that I don't like." I kind of feel the same way.  She's put out some of the best music of the decade, and it's nice that it has been so well accepted: she is probably one of the biggest stars in the world at the moment.

Songs In A Minor was introduced to the public by no less than Oprah Winfrey... at the personal request of Clive Davis. A lot of people believed in Alicia, and not just in her potential to be a star, but that she was something special.  Her first single "Fallin'" showed that she was the rare contemporary R&B artist who had a sense of the history of the genre (maybe too much sense, since it liberally borrows from the string arrangement of James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World"). The song holds up with or without the strings though. "A Woman's Worth" was also classic - these are R&B songs that could have come from the '60s or '70s as easliy as the '00s. She also held her own with a cover of Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore." And, oh yeah, she was reverent of her influences, but didn't get intimidated by them, and didn't shy away from putting herself in the same continuity as them; witness the Prince cover, or her version of Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" from the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon after 9/11. Alicia had respect: she also had a six-time platinum debut that won her five Grammys.  A good start -- one which would paralyze lesser artists. Alicia kept her eyes on the prize and followed up with an even better album.

2003's The Diary Of Alicia Keys didn't sell as well: "only" about 4 million. She won three more Grammys for the album (and another one for a duet with Usher from his album). "You Don't Know My Name," "If I Was Your Woman" and "If I Ain't Got You" are modern day R&B classics, as was "Diary," which saw her collaborating with the reunited Tony! Toni! Tone!). "Dragon Days" and "Samsonite Man" were great album tracks - never released as singles or videos, but worthy of attention as much as the singles. She followed that with a good Unplugged - which would have been even better if scheduling conflicts didn't prevent her planned guests Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards from appearing with her. She was going to do "NYC Serenade" with Bruce!

In 2005, she (unintentionally) outshone Bono on their cover of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush duet "Don't Give Up." The song was an iTunes exclusive to raise funds for AIDS related charities in Africa, a cause that is close to both artist's hearts. (She's a founder of the Keep A Child Alive organization.) In 2007, she bought the house down at the Live Earth concerts when she joined Keith Urban for a cover of The Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." Some people don't like her "rock" voice, but I do.

In 2007, she made her film debut in Smokin' Aces (which also featured Common), and also released As I Am, another really good album. "No One" may be her best song yet. And of course, last year she dueted with Jack White on "Another Way To Die" from the James Bond flick of the same name (lots of people hated it, I love it). Just a few weeks ago, she released her latest album, The Element Of Freedom, which I am still digesting.

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Keys, and she seems so down-to-earth and comfortable in her own skin. It's easy to react to someone in their early 20s who is already a multi-multi-millionaire with negativity, but I say that if there has to be a young person with that kind of dough, I'm glad it's her. Unlike a lot of artists in her position, she acts interested in you, not just her, and you get the impression that you are talking to an actual human, not a robot being controlled remotely by a marketing department. So, she's one of my "Best of the '00s" artists, and I kind of predict she'll make my "Best of the '10s" as well.

More Best Of The '00s: Bob Dylan
Willie Nelson
Aimee Mann
Jeff Tweedy
David Johansen
Levon Helm
The Beatles
Jim James
Steve Earle
Ben Harper

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