Soph sell


December 3, 2003



They were two of the most successful new female artists of 2001, and both walked away with significant honors at the Grammy Awards in early 2002.

Now, Alicia Keys and Nelly Furtado are back with their eagerly anticipated second albums. But instead of improving upon the unique, genre-defying traits of their debuts, "The Diary of Alicia Keys" and Furtado's "Folklore" both suffer by attempting to be everything to all listeners, and the artists' personalities are lost in the process.

Propelled by a nearly unprecedented, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign courtesy of Clive Davis' J Records, Keys' debut, "Songs in A Minor," sold an astounding 10 million copies worldwide. But the shortcomings of the 22-year-old New York native were already apparent as she toured in support of the disc, displaying an awkward stiffness onstage and moving jarringly from piano showboating to stilted rapping to sappy, faux-soul balladry.

"The Diary of Alicia Keys" continues trying to walk this tightrope, but all too often, the diva trips and falls into the net. Self-produced (with help from the likes of Timbaland on the hip-hop tip and Tony Toni Tone on the R&B end), Keys professes to be giving listeners an unedited glimpse at her inner thoughts.

"These songs are like my daily entrees," she writes in the liner notes. "Writing helps me thru."

But the lyrics are rife with cliches ("What goes around comes around/What goes up must come down," she sings in "Karma," practically inviting derision from skeptics who called her debut a hype), and the grooves and melodies often seem schizophrenic.

There are sub-"Shaft" funk jams ("Heartburn"), horny hip-hop come-ons ("Harlem's Nocturne") and saccharine cocktail-lounge pop songs worthy of Billy Joel ("If I Ain't Got You").

Finally, when Keys attempts to graft a cover of the soulful slow jam "If I Was Your Woman," a chestnut associated with Gladys Knight, with raga guitar licks and a melody lifted from (and credited to) the Burt Bacharach/Hal David easy-listening standard "Walk On By," it's enough to give you whiplash.

Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Furtado is back after taking time off to have a baby following the release of her debut, "Whoa, Nelly," which sold almost 2.5 million copies and scored a Grammy for the fetching single "I'm Like a Bird." There's nothing as instantly endearing as that hit on the new album, but Furtado opens the disc with a defiant exclamation of her artistic ambitions. "I am not a one-trick pony," she sings. "I really feel that nothing can hold me."

Indeed, while "Folklore" is being hyped as putting more of an emphasis on the singer-songwriter's roots in traditional Portuguese music, the opening track, "One-Trick Pony," attempts an uneasy merger of hip-hop rhythms, a big pop sing-along chorus, banjo, Hawaiian guitar and the classical strings of the Kronos Quartet.

The album (which was produced by Furtado and Mike Elizondo) suffers from this sort of dizzying eclecticism throughout. And like "The Diary of Alicia Keys," it's full or trite or downright embarrassing lyrics.

"Paint my face in your magazines/Make it look whiter than it seems," Furtado sings in "Powerless (Say What You Want)." "Paint me over with your dreams/ Shove away my ethnicity."

The artist herself is the one who is shying away from her roots, lacking the confidence to commit to traditional material -- or even more modern world-beat sounds -- by injecting big dollops of rote pop and hip-hop into her material.

Keys and Furtado are both blessed with powerful vocal instruments, and both are driven to the extent that they will likely have long careers on the pop charts. Hopefully, they'll show more courage on future recordings, stop trying to appeal to every marketing demographic and follow paths that are truly their own.