As a virtuoso piano player and a sultry singer whose voice can embrace old-school soul and modern R&B as easily as streetwise hip-hop and dance-pop, there is no denying the talents of Alicia Keys.
Yet throughout a nearly decade-long career that has made the 29-year-old New Yorker and 12-time Grammy winner one of the bestselling artists of the new millennium, it also has been just as difficult to dismiss the facts that her music is often manipulated by the most crass machinations of the hit-making machinery--or that she has yet to produce music as deep and rich as her talents warrant.
Born in Harlem in 1981 to an African-American father and an Italian-American mother, the former Alicia Augello Cook began studying classical piano at age seven and went on to become a star pupil at Manhattan's Performance Arts High School. After graduating as valedictorian, she decided to skip college to focus on her musical career and the promises of a partnership with legendary hit-maker Clive Davis, who saw her as the cornerstone artist to launch his new label, J Records.
Davis spared no expense to make Keys a star--she was introduced to the pop marketplace with all of the strategic subtlety of the U.S. invasion of Iraq--and his investment paid off when her 2001 debut "Songs in A Minor" sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. Yet the disc seemed sterile, over-produced and calculated to offer something to everyone without a single clear artistic vision, and Keys proved to be a stiff and awkward performer on her early tours.
Questions lingered about whether credit for Keys' commercial accomplishments was due to her or to Davis. In the summer of 2002, six months after her breakthrough success, I asked her if she could imagine her career at that point without her mentor (whose call actually interrupted our interview at one point).
"It does appear that you're led in a certain direction for a reason, and that it was all meant to happen in this way," Keys said. "I'm sure it would still be happening without him, because that's the type of determination that I have--that no matter what, I would always be putting my all into it. But I do believe that when things are lined up properly, and you get with people who are on the same page as you, as Mr. Davis is, it just really makes it magical."
Eight years later, Keys has escaped the shadow of her industry svengali to some degree, although the problem of who Alicia Keys really is still lingers. Her second album, "The Diary of Alicia Keys" (2003), professed to give us an unedited glimpse at her inner thoughts--"These songs are like my daily entrees," she wrote in the liner notes--but the lyrics, always a weak point, once again were rife with clichés ("What goes around comes around/What goes up must come down," she cooed in "Karma") and the grooves and melodies once more seemed scattered and unfocused.
By veering further toward the pop mainstream, "As I Am" (2007) turned out to be Keys' most enjoyable record to date. Though it still boasted the familiar problems of over-production and laughable lyrics, it was less concerned with walking that something-for-everyone tightrope between soul, R&B, hip-hop and pop, and it simply concentrated on guilty-pleasure hooks: the mildly funky "Wreckless Love"; "Sure Looks Good to Me," a bombastic lighters-in-the-air ballad worthy of Meat Loaf; "The Thing About Love," a Linda Perry tune that was so over the top it almost seemed camp, and best of all the supremely silly "Superwoman."
Alas, when it came time for album number four, Keys decided to return to heaviosity. She defines the concept behind the title "The Element of Freedom" in a ponderous introduction: "And the day came/When the risk it took/To remain tightly closed in a bud/Was more painful than the risk it took to bloom."
So what does this flowering bouquet give us? Sample lyric: "These king-sized sheets/Need more than just a queen." Ouch.
Asked by the Wall Street Journal if the new album felt like an extension of what she's done in the past or a new direction, Keys said, "It feels a mixture of both. It feels a bit like an extension, but also that I've been able to grow to the next level. I'm glad about that. The album is a representation of a certain time in my life, and an understanding of what it means to decide what's good for me and to create around that. Now that I feel like I've gone to the next level, the test for me is to see how much I've learned and continue to move forward.
"I think maturity is a good word," the singer added. "Maturity and experience are part of my liberation."
It takes more than passing birthdays to gain maturity, and if Keys has been liberated by her experiences, there's precious little evidence of it yet in her music, whether you compare it to the greats she claims to emulate (including Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway) or her neo-soul peers. (You want the sounds of experience? Try Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill or Angie Stone.)
Of course, we can still hope. "I don't feel like I reached the top; I have a lot more to climb," Keys recently told the Toronto Sun. "I want to continue growing and expressing myself creatively. I definitely want a family. To be a mother, that's gonna be a beautiful time in life."
Alicia Keys, Robin Thicke and Melanie Fiona
7:30 p.m. Wednesday [March 3]
Allstate Arena, Rosemont
Tickets $49.50 to $125
(312) 559-1212; www.ticketmaster.com