Happy 15th Anniversary to Alicia Keys’ debut album Songs in A Minor, originally released June 5, 2001. [Stream album and watch videos below]
In the summer of 2000, a year after graduating from UCLA, I fled the west coast and my entry-level gig with a startup music marketing firm for New York City, my current (and hopefully eternal) home base. My first job here was a marketing role with a national radio company, which involved a considerable amount of travel to conferences, showcases, and other industry events. One such event I vividly recall was the Radio & Records Convention back in Los Angeles in June of 2001, a trip that represented my first homecoming of sorts back in my former stomping grounds.
The big draw at the convention was the keynote speaker, the one and only President Bill Clinton, who, at the time, was just a handful of months removed from the conclusion of his eight-year term in office. Charismatic and eloquent as ever, I recall his speech being insightful and optimistic about the future of enhanced globalization through the proliferation of media and communications technology. I also recall that Clinton’s keynote address was bookended by an introduction courtesy of the amazing Stevie Nicks and a rousing performance by the super-talented Shelby Lynne. All in all, the top billing lived up to its expectations for the vast majority of those in attendance.
But for me, the trio of Clinton, Nicks and Lynne took a backseat to witnessing the new artist showcase that took place later that day just after sunset. More specifically, I’ve never forgotten one special performance by a highly touted 20 year-old musical wunderkind who I had read much about in the weeks prior. Alicia Keys.
Just a week before the event, Keys’ much-heralded debut album Songs in A Minor had been released to the tune of a few hundred thousand units sold in its first week, enough to garner Keys the #1 position on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Though many of the attention-deficient industry heads at the showcase were incredulously not even watching or listening to the gifted young virtuoso tickling the ebonies and ivories on stage, I, for one, was completely enthralled by her way-too-brief set, which included the massive hit “Fallin’” alongside a few other less instantly recognizable album tracks. “Holy shit,” I remember saying to the gentleman standing next to me. “Alicia is the real deal, as advertised.”
Indeed, the industry and media hype machine surrounding Keys’ grand emergence on the pop and urban music scenes, bolstered by her ubiquitous debut single “Fallin,’” was pervasive throughout the few months prior to Songs in A Minor’s release. But after being treated to her stellar performance that evening, I was convinced that Keys actually hadn’t been hyped enough. The following day, I took a quick drive out to the iconic Tower Records (R.I.P.) on Sunset Boulevard, snagged a copy of Songs in A Minor, and listened to it on repeat during my flight back to New York the next day. A few months later, I had the good fortune of seeing Keys grace the stage again, this time at radio station Z100’s annual “Jingle Ball” concert at Madison Square Garden. Needless to say, she killed it, once again.
Born and raised in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Keys was a prodigious, classically trained musical talent throughout her early childhood. While she has consistently cited the masters Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart among her earliest inspirations, throughout her later adolescence and teenage years, she immersed herself in more contemporary musical forms and developed a profound reverence for soul, jazz, and hip-hop in particular.
“[Marvin Gaye’s] What's Going On and [The Notorious B.I.G.’s] Ready to Die was that whole realism, talkin' about what was really going' on right in their face,” Keys reflected during her 2001 Rolling Stone cover interview. “Biggie and Marvin told me, write what you know; you don't have to make it up, it's right there. Then I wanted to discover every type of music like that—Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Rakim, Prince—everyone who had that thing. That true emotion. For real. Not for fun, not for money, for real. That's what I listened to, that's what I lived, that's what I fell in love with."
Even before she was named valedictorian of New York City’s Professional Performing Arts School at the age of 16 and received a full scholarship to attend Columbia University, Keys was heavily pursued by the major record labels. At the behest of her manager Jeff Robinson, Keys signed her first contract with Columbia Records. Columbia formally introduced their prized new talent by featuring her debut single “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)” on 1997’s Men in Black Soundtrack, alongside tracks by urban music heavyweights A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Destiny’s Child, Nas, The Roots, Snoop Dogg, and Will Smith.
Despite the prospect of success and fame that Keys’ deal with Columbia augured, the working relationship soon soured, with early recording sessions for what was supposed to be her debut album running afoul. Columbia’s cookie-cutter roadmap for Keys’ career never jived with her own more expansive musical ambitions, which resulted in the hiring of producers that proved incompatible with the sound she aimed to develop. “It was a hard, depressing, frustrating time," Keys recalled to The Guardian in 2001. "The record label had the wrong vision for me. They didn't want me to be an individual, didn't really care. They just wanted to put me in a box.”
After two years with Columbia, with no album to show for it, the disenchanted Keys was able to terminate her contract and explore other landing spots. Enter industry luminary Clive Davis, who helped launch the careers of Aerosmith, Earth, Wind & Fire, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and Bruce Springsteen, among many others.
Davis took Keys under his wing at Arista and soon thereafter, took her along with him to J Records, the company he founded in the wake of his ousting as head of Arista in 2000. “Did I know [Alicia] was going to sell a million records?" Davis contemplated during a discussion with Rolling Stone. "Of course not! I knew she was unique, I knew she was special. I knew she was a self-contained artist. But did I know with Janis Joplin? Did I know with Springsteen? Did I know with Patti Smith? When you sign them, you don't know, but you feel this is something special and unique, so waiting for artistry to flower and giving them the space to do it is the thing. Then, when the album is done, you take nothing for granted.” After years of enduring a label that never offered her the creative freedom she deserved, Keys finally discovered the support system she needed to kick her career into high gear, and by her own rules.
Determined to reclaim control over the recording sessions for her debut LP, the empowered Keys wrote, arranged, and produced most of the songs that ultimately comprised Songs in A Minor. “I knew the only way it would sound like anything I would be remotely proud of is if I did it,” she confided to Rolling Stone. Evoking a maturity and poise that belie her 20 years at the time of the album’s release, Songs in A Minor is a masterpiece of piano-blessed soul, a grand encapsulation of Keys’ ambition, vision, and far-reaching breadth of musical influences.
The opening “Piano & I” sets the traditional-meets-contemporary tone for the rest of the album. It begins as an operatic interlude that lifts Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” but the beat drops around the 50-second mark, suggesting that this is most definitely not your standard sonata-based song suite.
Propelled by a sample of James Brown’s 1966 single “It's a Man's Man's Man's World,” the piano-tinkling, gospel-tinged “Fallin’” finds Keys examining the emotional vicissitudes of love, attempting to reconcile the inevitable give-and-take, push-and-pull dichotomy that defines most relationships. On one hand, it is unequivocally the album’s high water mark, deserving of all of the praise lavished upon it. On the other hand, its ubiquity also overshadowed, to some extent, Songs in A Minor’s many other excellent songs that warrant plenty of applause as well.
Chief among the stellar fare are four memorable compositions featured across the album’s first half, beginning with the headnod-inducing “Girlfriend,” which finds Keys expressing pangs of envy for her man’s platonic connection with an old female friend. More than any track on the album, “Girlfriend” reinforces Keys’ penchant for merging urban grime with melodic soul, largely due to Jermaine Dupri’s production and a flawlessly incorporated sample of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s 1995 hit “Brooklyn Zoo.”
Originally included on the 2000 soundtrack to the John Singleton directed film Shaft, the romantic ode to emotional fidelity “Rock wit U” harkens back to 1970s soul, thanks to strings and flutes provided by the Isaac Hayes Orchestra. Appropriately enough, mind you, considering that Hayes was the sonic mastermind behind the original, Grammy-winning Shaft soundtrack released in 1971.
The Rhodes-blessed anti-chauvinism anthem and second official single “A Woman’s Worth” rivals “Fallin’” for the album’s most inspired moment, with Keys extoling the virtues of the real men who know how to treat a woman with dignity and respect. Not far behind in terms of emotional firepower is Keys’ solid cover version of the late Prince’s lament for a lost love “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore” (minus the “Anymore” here), the B-side to The Purple One’s classic 1982 single “1999.” Covering Prince is typically considered musical hubris, but Keys manages to do the original justice while asserting her own voice through her rendition. Also worthy of praise is the plaintive, subdued “Troubles,” in which Keys reassuringly suggests that “you just gotta let it go” when confronted with whatever adversities life throws your way.
The second half of Songs in A Minor admittedly fails to match the consistency of the first half, but a few standouts exist nevertheless, most notably the streamlined piano and acoustic guitar ballad “Butterflyz,” one of Keys earliest compositions. Other highlights include “Caged Bird,” a poignant nod to Maya Angelou’s celebrated autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and “Lovin’ U,” the hidden track that concludes the album and contains more than a few echoes of Aretha Franklin’s most soulful stylings.
A masterfully executed hybrid of classic and contemporary soul with an acute streetwise sensibility to balance its creator’s musical intelligence and passion, Songs in A Minor garnered five Grammy Awards for Keys at the 2002 ceremony, including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album. More importantly, Keys’ debut was the catalyst for the remarkable career she has cultivated over the past decade and a half. Keys has released four superb studio albums since, and the recent unveiling of new single “In Common” suggests that her sixth studio LP will emerge sooner than later.
“When I was working on The Color Purple, Quincy Jones said to me, ‘Your future is so bright it burns my eyes,’ Oprah Winfrey recounted during a 2004 interview with Keys. “I feel the same way about Alicia. The depth of who she'll become will startle her and the rest of the world.” It has indeed, and it will continue to do so as Keys’ artistry continues to evolve and excite for many years to come.