SONGS IN THE LIFE OF KEYS
||February 7, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Last summer, Alicia Keys surprised everyone when her debut album entered
Billboard magazine's pop albums chart at No. 1 and sold 236,000 copies in
week, even though the young singer-songwriter was virtually unknown to much
America. Since then, the 21-year-old New Yorker has been everywhere, gracing
countless magazine covers, appearing on numerous high-profile television
garnering six Grammy Award nominations.
Among music industry insiders, credit for these accomplishments has been
divided between Keys, a piano prodigy who grew up in Harlem, attended
Manhattan's Performance Arts High School and walked away from a scholarship
to Columbia University to concentrate on her music, and former Arista and
Columbia Records head Clive Davis, a music industry veteran who used all of
considerable muscle to make Keys the first star on his new label, J Records.
I spoke to Keys while she was in New York, preparing for the latest leg of
tour, which brings her to Chicago for shows tonight and Friday night at the
Crown Theater. Appropriately enough, our interview was delayed for 20
so that she could take an unexpected call from Davis.
Q. So what did Clive want?
A. [Laughs.] Oh, nothing. We were just talking about all the things coming
exchanging different ideas, making sure it's gonna be riiiight!
Q. Your debut album, "Songs in A Minor," was three years in the making, but
despite the wait, the response must be gratifying. Can you imagine your
career without Clive Davis at this point, or is that unthinkable?
A. 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. I'm sure it would still be happening
because that's the type of determination that I have--that no matter what, I
always be putting my all into it. But I do believe that when things are
properly, and you get with people who are on the same page as you, as Mr.
is, it just really makes it magical.
Q. Do you think you've bene-fitted from Davis really needing to put J
on the map?
A. I think there was so much energy and determination going in the same
of me really wanting to prove in my own way that I had what it took to be
wanted to be, and of him wanting to prove that he had what it took to
doing what he's always done, that it was just the perfect timing.
Q. I opened my mailbox today, and there you were on the cover of yet
another magazine. There's been a tremendous buzz, but do you worry that
there might be a backlash where people just get tired of you?
A. I hear you! It's something I'm absolutely conscious of because I know how
feel when it's happened to me with an artist that I really, really love so
then all the sudden it's like, "All right, already!" At the same time, I try
to always do
what feels right to me, and if it doesn't feel right, I don't do it. I can't
people's opinions determine the moves that I make. I just try to keep
Q. As a critic, I think one of the most encouraging trends in recent years
been the move back to real instrumentation and sweaty grooves, whether you
call it "natural R&B" or "neo-soul" or whatever. Do you feel a kinship with
people like Jill Scott, Angie Stone or Macy Gray?
A. I think it's wonderful, with those artists that you named plus many
more--India.Arie, Lauryn Hill, these are people that I truly look up to. I
them for what they do and the time and the effort and the heart that they
put into it,
and I'm very happy to be a part of it.
Q. Do you feel any competition?
A. No, I don't really believe in that. I feel that everybody has their own
place and their own individuality that makes them have their own niche. One
have to say about all those people that you mentioned, although they have
similarities in the sense of going out with bands or live music or writing
producing their own material, you still can separate each one.
Q. A lot of critics have said that what sets your material apart is more of
hip-hop consciousness. Do you think that's valid?
A. Definitely. I grew up straight in the heart of all that, with what I was
New York City, and one of my biggest influences is hip-hop. In my
it's always there.
Q. How do you square the Beethoven and the hip-hop? When I saw you at the
Chicago Theatre at a WGCI show last September, the classical piano
interlude didn't seem to mix that well with your short MC, who, quite
really annoyed me and distracted from what you were doing.
A. I understand what you're saying! [Laughs.] It's all a matter of personal
I've had different people say different things: You either love him or hate
kind of the vibe that goes on. But when I did those radio shows, that was a
different scheme, and if you saw me now, you would see how the evolution has
definitely taken place. It's just a feeling, and you go with the moment and
feeling. I do appreciate your honesty, though. [Laughs.]
Q. How do you deal with the burden of headlining a room as big as the Arie
Crown on what is still essentially your first tour?
A. Let me tell you how much fun I have onstage and how I feel no pressure
night. Every night I get prepared to do this show and my energy is so high
spirit is so calm that it truly amazes me. I feel ready to conquer and that
confident and that the people in the audience are guaranteed to have a
time. And up until this point, that's exactly what has happened. To me,
nonexistent, as long as I follow my heart.
Q. Critics also have praised you for addressing the issue of hip-hop's
disrespect of women.
A. I think that's exactly what's happening now, and it's time for that to
course, everybody has negative sides to every story. You can find a
strong, amazing, supportive woman, and you can also find a trifling,
scheming person. That's natural; there's always those two sides. I just feel
to show people how beautiful a woman is and how much she's worth and how
much she should be respected. There's so much more than what's kind of
the cliche of women in music.
Q. Do you think there'll ever be a sea change in hip-hop away from the
gangstas' disrespect toward something more positive?
A. Definitely. It already exists, and it just so happens, it doesn't get as
It already exists with MCs like Nas and Common and Eve. And now me.