"Fallin'," the smash lead single that spurred college-aged soul diva Alicia Keys' commercial eruption last year, is the kind of record that announces the arrival of a star, because it's both that good and that calculating. The song is an incredibly savvy bit of musical drama concocted from a few spare elements: Keys' own much-gushed-over piano, some call-and-response background vocals, and rise-and-fall dynamics that climax in the song's clincher Keys, alone, reaching for the rafters with a trio of "Oh!"s. There's also some violin that subtly snakes through the song before rising up to announce its presence at the very end. Call that last part a signature of Keys' classiness.
Not that Keys needs the nod to chamber music for that. "Fallin'" inspired countless inevitable comparisons to Aretha Franklin. Inevitable not just because Aretha also became an "overnight" success on a torchy debut single that boasted her own piano playing (yes, Franklin plied her trade for years before Jerry Wexler and Atlantic Records rescued her career, but Keys was apparently "discovered" at 14 and waited years before seeing her first record hit the racks) but because Keys' song, with the lyrical hook of "I've never loved someone/The way that I love you," is dangerously similar to Franklin's breakout hit "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)."
But the comparisons are also, of course, silly. Keys holds her own in the vocal department as well as any mere mortal could be expected to, but the difference is in the playing. Keys favors "Look, Mom, I practiced so hard for the recital!" tinkles over deep-soul chord blasts and therefore has as much in common with Bruce Hornsby (or Vanessa Carlton) as she does with Aretha Franklin.
But just because Keys is no Franklin doesn't mean she isn't a major artist, one who bridges three different shades of soul and pop with the kind of aplomb that so many other young strivers (see ex-ballerina Carlton or the cast of American Idol, among the many fetching would-be careerists currently cluttering the pop landscape) desperately try to duplicate.
Keys doesn't quite fit the neo-soul mode, either in the earth-mama (Erykah Badu, Jill Scott) or rockbitch (Joi, Me'Shell NdegÇOcello) mold. But her debut album Songs In A Minor boasts enough of the elements required to gain respect on that scene. For starters, of the record's 16 tracks, six are sole Keys copyrights and eight others are shared credits, a ratio probably more in line with neo-soul (where writing your own material is de rigueur) than contemporary soul proper (where songwriters- and producers-for-hire still drive content). And then there are the ace musical touches that underscore Keys' connection to an older soul tradition (the Isaac Hayes sample on "Rock Wit U," the sublime reading of Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me") and her solidarity with hip hop (the beat-box undercurrents on "Jane Doe" and the choice Wu-Tang sample on "Girlfriend").
But, in other ways, Keys is as much overambitious teenybopper as neo-soul cat, her emergence presaging the current crop of brunette Britneys and TRL gamma girls (Carlton, Michelle Branch, Avril Lavigne, etc.). Signed as a young teen and still perhaps not of drinking age, this former valedictorian of the Manhattan Professional Performing Arts School is a Fame kid, with the same kind of eager-to-please pop feel and hardened biz experience that Britney and BeyoncÇ brought to their careers. The difference, of course, is that Keys doesn't want to be an Austin Powers girl; she wants to be Stevie Wonder or Prince, in much the same way previous prodigy Debbie Gibson wanted to be Billy Joel.
Which brings us to the final genre category that you could slot Keys into and the one in which she's probably most comfortable: pure pop pro. A protÇgÇ of legendary industry shot-caller Clive Davis (the man who gave the world Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston), Keys is all overstated showmanship where her neo-soul contemporaries are understated cool. She's got all the middlebrow pretensions that neo-soulsters are too smart for and teen-popsters too dumb for, and she's taken them to the bank. Here is a 20-year-old who rewrites Maya Angelou on her debut album ("Caged Bird" and she got her own Oprah showcase, duh) and stops in the middle of an awards-show performance to dance a tango. Now that's the stuff of 8 million records sold and five Grammys.
Then again, neither Barry Manilow nor Debbie Gibson (or, hell, Whitney, for that matter) ever made a record as good as Songs In A Minor. A lot of the record is too generic, but there's enough good stuff to prove that "Fallin'" is no fluke, and every highlight puts Keys' piano and voice up front without too much standard R&B studio clutter. There's the follow-up hit, "A Woman's Worth," which is florid and jazzy in a manner similar to "Fallin'," with the same start-stop dynamics, call and response, and sense of dramatic pacing. (And dig the way Keys bites into the song's sexuality: "And a real woman knows a real man ain't afraid to please her.") And there's the unlisted final track, "Lovin' U," in which Keys shows she knows her way around gospel and doo-wop sounds.
But best of all is that Prince cover. Keys rips through one of His Royal Badness' finest B-sides (and few artists tucked as many great records on the flip-side of a 45 as Prince) with all the schlock-drama gusto it deserves and with all the hubris you wouldn't expect from an upstart covering a master. With sly vocal asides ("I'm not tryin' hear that shit," she huffs), falsetto shrieks, organ squeaks, and well-timed moans and grunts, Keys makes the record her own.
As high as Keys aims, she isn't quite there yet, but Songs In A Minor offers enough evidence to hope that maybe she isn't just Clive Davis' latest cash cow. Maybe she could also be his first A-list artist.
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 20th