Review Summary: Sadly, her third album is completely phoned in.
Funny how a couple of planes, a couple of buildings, and a half-assed war can change things. Back in early 2001, Alicia Keys was just about the hottest ticket in music, right from the top of the charts to all but the most niche critics. Fact was, back then, music was basically lost. Everybody working was either clinging to the end of trends that had already enjoyed their day in the sun (think grunge, boy bands, pop-punk, or female singer-songwriter types), or toiling away in obscurity without even making the tiniest concessions to the mainstream (countless metal and post-rock bands), or chasing their tails trying to figure out how to follow up OK Computer
or how to move music forward at the turn of the century. Hip-hop was either commercially suicidal or intellectually vapid. Rock didn't seem to know its ass from its elbow. Nu-metal was trying to combine the two and desperately failing to understand the essence of either. Pop was waiting for the next trend, seemingly incapable of creating one itself. And soul? Forget it. These were the crazy days when Daphne & Celeste, Lyte Funkie Ones, Papa Roach, and Shaggy could scale the charts seemingly by default, the days when U2 were beginning to be treated as messiahs again and R.E.M. had recaptured a mass fanbase simply by being an established band who didn't suck.
All of which demonstrates why people clung as hard as they could to any new artist who demonstrated the power to be musically valid and get their songs in the charts, too. For roughly three years at the turn of the century, it was a seriously big deal. Remember how many people jumped on the Outkast bandwagon when "Ms. Jackson" came out? Eminem became America's biggest star. And then there was Alicia Keys.
People instantly loved Alicia Keys. It's not hard to see why - she was writing genuine soul, with a genuine, acknowledged blues influence, but dragging it into the 21st century by tastefully adding bits and pieces of hip-hop along the way. It was new, it was exciting. Then figure in the fact that she was quite pleasant to look at, AND she was a public figure who a) young people were genuinely idolizing, and b) played a musical instrument with real flair and obvious talent. What was not to like about this woman? With the runaway success of "Fallin'", it genuinely looked like Alicia was on a fast-track to becoming the most popular musician in the world.
And then 9/11 happened, and people's priorities shifted away from whether or not somebody could play a musical instrument. Suddenly there was a demand for music that reflected the suddenly dark, dangerous world we were living in, and a stream of rock artists (Green Day, Bruce Springsteen, A Perfect Circle, System of a Down, U2 again) who would attempt to fill that void with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success. Alicia Keys, with her wholesome image and her pretty piano playing and her sensual vocals and her tender soul music, fell by the wayside. She was still having big hits by the time The Diary of Alicia Keys
came out, but it's hard to deny that she'd lost a vast chunk of her fanbase, both actual and potential.
All of which is obviously incredibly harsh on the woman and her music, because as large swathes of As I Am
show, she's still got a considerable natural gift for songwriting, a great voice, and a sound which she sounds entirely at home with. There's occasional half-hearted moves toward (soft-) rock which distinguishes this from her first two albums - the Linda Perry-written "Sure Looks Good To Me" is a song that Heart would have been proud of, "Tell You Something" begins with an arpeggiated guitar part that naggingly similar to Razorlight's "America", and John Mayer's guest appearance on "Lesson Learned" is probably another attempt to court a rock audience - and there's a snappy organ, Booker T-style organ throughout the lightly funked-up "Where Do We Go From Here", but aside from that, the album relies heavily - too heavily - on relaxed soul ballads with a showstopping vocal delivery. Suddenly she's not only become irrelevant to millions by no fault of her own - it feels like she's embracing it.
Speaking of that showstopping delivery: yes, Alicia's voice is easily the star of the show here, and that's something that's difficult to complain about, because she's got a voice worthy of that kind of attention, and she always stops short of being melodramatic (except, perhaps, for "No One"), and she always sounds fairly genuine. But that masks the lack of real quality in these songs; the kind of quality a voice like hers deserves. These are almost all good songs, but just that - 'good'. Even the songs that have obvious potential - "Like You'll Never See Me Again", most notably - fail to achieve lift-off, and on occasion, like the cheesy "Superwoman", it's only Keys' delivery that elevates proceedings. Clearly, she's spent far more time working on her voice than the music (which is astonishing when you consider that it's been 4 years since her last album of original material). This album cries out for something as intimate as "Never Felt This Way/Butterlfyz", as instantly attention-grabbing as "Fallin'", as sweet as "My Boo", or simply for a chorus as perfectly written as "If I Ain't Got You". The absence of bad songs is merely a mask for the absence of great ones.
To that end, it seems that she's being let down by those around her. Whoever handled the arrangements on this album - I'm charitable enough to assume it wasn't Alicia herself - has clearly had a pioneering operation which involves the removal of a person's imagination. It's all just so obvious. The guest songwriters also offer little - John Mayer phoned his effort in, and both Marsha Ambrosius and Linda Perry ("Go Ahead" for Ambrosius and "Superwoman", "Sure Looks Good To Me" and "The Thing About Love" for Perry) have written songs much better than this, for artists far less talented and voices far worse than this.
The most telling thing that's holding As I Am
back is that, where Alicia once sounded like both the past and the future, she now just sounds out of time. If this album had been released at a time when it still would have sounded fresh, the lack of a great song would have been more acceptable. But today, this is too innocent, too passive to be able to escape that criticism. The claim made in 2006, that the album would be 'edgier' and would boast 'strange and unexpected collaborations' has turned out to be bull*** - this is her most neutered release, which means that her more recent claim that it's 'very fresh and new' is off the mark as well.
Alicia's fans will lap this up, of course, because she's catering to them and them only. That's fine - with three albums behind her and 19 million records sold, she's within her rights to do that, and if you're a devoted Keys follower you can go ahead and add a star to my rating. Problem is, it's hard to see why or how this album could or should be recommended to anyone other than the people who are going to buy it anyway. Despite the consistency - the one area in which she's improved - it's almost certainly the weakest and most irrelevant album she's produced. Sadly, if she wants the long, illustrious career she seemed destined to have back in 2001, she'll have to do much better than this.