Review Summary: "The Diary of Alicia Keys" further solidifies its author as likely heir to the crown of Soul's Leading Lady.
Alicia Keys was born in the Manhattan borough of New York City in the winter of 1981 – but to listen to her music, you could almost swear she's from 1968, Detroit. A throwback to the genre's golden era, when soul music had substance and power, Keys has been establishing herself as the new torchbearer of a sound on the decline since the untimely death of Marvin Gaye in the early '80s. Learning to play piano at the age of seven, Alicia was given a head start on an inevitable career in music, landing herself a record deal by the age of sixteen. Emerging onto the pop music scene in 2001, with a piano line lifted straight from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown's “It's a Man's Man's Man's World,” “Fallin'”
catapulted Keys to number one in the charts and earned her a sizable pile of Grammys, including the prestigious Best New Artist award, 2002.
The Diary of Alicia Keys
continues in the trajectory of her debut, Songs in A Minor,
by creating a Classic Soul 2.0 sound, mixing the foundations of the old establishment with the streamlined beats and production of modern hip-hop and R&B. On introductory track, “Harlem's Nocturne”
, Keys opens the album with a flourish of classical piano, before dropping in a beat and proceeding to inform us that “this might take all [she] got,”
as she invites us on a journey into her musical diary. First proper song on the album, “Karma,”
briefly sheds her throwback sound, in favor of heavy hip-hop beats with a classical inspired, chopping horn accompaniment. With each verse increasing intensity until reaching a grand payoff chorus, “Karma”
establishes itself as a significant high-point in the young career of Alicia Keys.
Another early highlight of the record is a mashup cover version of Gladys Knight and The Pip's “If I Was Your Woman”
(written by Gloria Jones [“Tainted Love”
]) and Isaac Hayes' version of Dionne Warwick's “Walk on By”
(written by Burt Bacharach). With Keys' deep voice driving the song to new heights, the track is a fully realized reworking of a couple old tunes from the era she draws her greatest inspiration, further solidifying her as likely heir to the crown of soul's leading lady.
Co-written by Alicia Keys and Kanye West, lead single “You Don't Know My Name”
is a finely crafted, vintage soul ballad that continues to prove Keys' ability to arrive with diamonds in hand. “You Don't Know My Name”
sounds like it belongs on a greatest hits collection - until Keys cuts the wheel and puts it in a ditch. Committing a social faux pas, Alicia interrupts the song mid-way to make a minute and a half imaginary phone call, in which she solicits a date from “Michael,” a customer from a make believe coffee shop where she pretend works. Using the phone in the middle of a song is just plain rude, and displays a real lack of social grace. Thankfully, all is forgiven when the track is followed up by the best written song on the album, musically and lyrically, “If I Ain't Got You.”
With a heart-wrenching chorus, Alicia denounces every need beyond love: “Some people want diamond rings / Some just want everything / But everything means nothing / If I ain't got you.”
Spending 40 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, the track would go on to win the Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, 2005, in addition to a nomination for Song of the Year.
An uneven mix of quality and pedestrian arrangements, Diary...
clearly demonstrates the refined talents of Alicia Keys, yet leaves a lot of room for growth; especially in later tracks. “When You Really Love Someone”
plays like a sped-up, less interesting “Fallin'.” “Slow Down”
sounds as though it would blend seamlessly into an album by the late Aaliyah, but loses all of it's credibility when it references the medulla oblongata. A bad lyric can kill a song, and any line involving obscure anatomy can spoil even the best of tracks. Late album track and non-single “Wake Up”
is a return to form, with one of the album's better choruses, while earlier tracks like and “Dragon Days”
and the “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”
change the pace by introducing a bit of funk to the collection.
While The Diary of Alicia Keys
didn't attain the same level of success as its predecessor, the record did debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 album chart, as well earn eight more Grammy nominations with four wins, including the 2005 R&B Album of the Year award. Although the album has flashes of greatness with some top-quality retro soul, overall it leaves an empty feeling - as though she's capable of creating a masterpiece, but unwilling to put in the effort necessary to do so at this point in her career.