Music critics are invited to see burgeoning singer-songwriters almost every day. But when a request came across this writer’s desk to see a young singer-songwriter at an intimate showcase 10 years ago, it carried with it high expectations.
Backed by music mogul Clive Davis, Alicia Keys was billed as a cross between Lauryn Hill and Whitney Houston — a gritty, cornrow-wearing R&B singer who was a brilliant, classically trained pianist with both a stunning voice and beauty. She was going to be big. Bigger than big. Grammy Awards and multiplatinum sales were more than hoped for, they were expected.
Keys delivered on the all hype when her debut, “Songs in A Minor,” was released in 2001. The album established the 20-year-old as one of the most influential artists of her generation. But looking back, Keys says she didn’t expect the album would make her a superstar.
“This had been a lot of years of me struggling to put out any music, and there had been multiple times where we were like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen,’ and it didn’t. So in a lot of ways in my mind, I think maybe I was protecting myself,” she recalled.
Now, the 30-year-old Keys can celebrate. The album is being rereleased this week with special editions that include previously unreleased tracks and video footage. Keys, who married music producer Swizz Beatz and gave birth to a son last year, will also perform songs from the album at a concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre on Thursday.
“There are certain things you have to celebrate, like certain birthdays are more special than the others, just because they kind of represent a growth, so for me, that’s what this is,” she said in a phone interview last week. She talked about that milestone album and how she’s evolved over the decade.
The Associated Press: Had you been thinking about the anniversary?
Keys: I didn’t even really realize it, somebody else kind of brought it up to me. … (But) as I started thinking of it, and we started talking about it, I knew there were tons of songs from that time that I didn’t put out. I didn’t do anything with (them) because it wasn’t right for the time, but I thought, ‘How crazy would it be to go back and listen to them and figure out which were ones that I’d love people to hear.’ There are songs that I did when I was 16, 17. It’s really, really cool.
AP: In the video that accompanies the rerelease, you talk about how you weren’t the refined girl people expected. What were the adjustments that you had to make over the years, and how have you changed?
Keys: I was straight off the streets of Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen. … I’m a real New York girl. So I think that was kind of a bit of a shock for people, especially back then, to see a real New York girl, and here I was doing all of these interviews. … When I look back at them, I’m like, ‘Damn, Alicia, you could have been a little gentler.’ I just had a certain kind of roughness to me. That was just because that’s the way I associated with people at the time, that’s the way that I spoke. … I remember reading a couple of things where they literally kind of criticized the way that I used my hands, or the way that I spoke, or say that I was whatever because I spoke a certain way. There were a lot of judgments, I think, that definitely made me conscious about how to start to maybe be a little bit more aware of how I was coming off … but I’m still the same me.
AP: How have you musically evolved?
Keys: (What) I really learned about music is that you don’t understand it. That’s the part about it. There really is no formula … it’s all about a gift, it’s like a moment, and you don’t know when that moment is going to come. … (Also) I’ve been able to be more experimental and just more open and more driven to do things that are new and different from me, because as an artist, you just always want to do things that are like unique and new and fresh. You don’t ever want someone to say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that same thing that she does.’ For me, I want it to always be new.
AP: How has marriage and motherhood changed you?
Keys: It’s made me so much stronger, it’s made me so much more powerful. First of all, I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my whole life. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life. And I also realize more the importance of time, and I realize the importance of really, really making sure that you dedicate certain times to the people that you love. Back when I was younger, I was so focused on doing whatever it takes to get noticed, or getting a chance to have my music be heard by people, I didn’t recognize how much time was valuable. … It helps me make more clear and concise choices.
AP: Do you miss your cornrows? That was your signature look.
Keys: I do miss my braids so much. … Sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m gonna throw them back in!’