Review Summary: One of the best debuts in modern commercial music.
There's not an easy way to accurately describe the magnitude of Alicia Keys' success, especially in such a short time. The 35 million copies she's sold can certainly attribute to all of this, but I can tell you right now that there's a reason: she refreshed pop audiences. Instead of going the traditional route of a pop star, it was all about going back to her very roots, those being soul and gospel. It was definitely a clever idea to mix these genres in with modern R&B influences and even many hints of Michael Jackson's 80's-era work, but clearly the biggest draw is still Keys' voice. And what better way to display all of this than to look back at her legendary debut, Songs in A Minor?
Never mind the fact that only one song ("Jane Doe") from the album is actually in the key of A minor, or that Keys' later work isn't exactly up to snuff; her first album set the bar so high that it was (and is) exceptionally tough to replicate or top. What we get are sixteen smooth soul/R&B tunes that highlight Keys' singing to a great degree, all while keeping the solid beats intact and where they should be (barring two songs that don't even have beats). All of this is supplemented by harmonized gospel vocals and the occasional extra instrument, such as an acoustic guitar. Either way, Keys is able to adapt to whatever's thrown her way, and is give things her own spin all the same. "Butterflyz," for instance, is out of her normal R&B element, and yet she compliments the acoustic guitar's intimate atmosphere with a showcase of her vocal dynamics with frightening ease. And do I even need to mention "Fallin'" in all of this? "Fallin'" was the smash hit that displayed her vocal work along with extremely elegant soul balladry. The beats are good, but it's Keys' voice and the gospel vocal backing that makes the song so memorable; between Keys' soaring wails and the simple-yet-intimate lyrics, "Fallin'" is easily worthy of its reputation and countless covers.
The lyrics are mainly based around love, but it's the conviction in Keys' singing that creates a real atmosphere around these words. The difference between Songs in A Minor and future works by her is the fact that her style was clearly a breath of fresh air when she came onto the scene. The steamy piano lines and beats that usually stay within a 3/4 time signature were very unique compared to most of what was coming out at the time, and Keys' way of singing her personal lyrics most likely proved influential to future acts like Taylor Swift and Adele. A song like "Girlfriend" proves to be one of the highlights of the record more because of Keys' overlapping vocal lines and harmonies rather than the been-there-done-that lyrics of love and jealousy. The same goes with "How Come You Don't Call Me"; the lyrics are surrounded by a C# piano line slightly shrouded by mystery as it modules to the key of A and then back again. The piano work in general is simple yet effective, going through its own story of conflicting emotions much like Keys is already doing with her singing.
Unfortunately, the lyrics are the biggest problem with the record. It's definitely not a big blemish, mind you, but they're the only thing holding the album back from being an all-out classic. The "love-and-heartbreak" drivel has been heard a million times, and there's not exactly anything new here. Aside from that, however, the rest of the record's qualities land it squarely upon a pantheon that, frankly, wasn't really expected. In the world of commercial pop music, there can occasionally be a gem in the pile of overpolished trash, and this just happens to be one of those gems. If you enjoy soul, R&B, or just plain good pop music, buy this as soon as you can.