Album: Songs in A Minor

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Album:

Songs in A Minor

Artist: Alicia Keys
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Label: J-Records

She may be beautiful, but Alicia Keys is a musician first and foremost. She plants herself firmly behind the piano keys on her debut, unlike many of the booty-waggin’ junior divas who are crowding the R&B videoscape these days. Though many of the tracks on Songs in A Minor are embellished with adolescent angst, this 20-year-old’s substantial, gorgeously soul-drenched alto putties the cracks between notes with astonishing ease. “Fallin’,” the album’s first single, showcases Keys at her best. She wails plaintively and passionately over rolling blues chords,…

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She may be beautiful, but Alicia Keys is a musician first and foremost. She plants herself firmly behind the piano keys on her debut, unlike many of the booty-waggin’ junior divas who are crowding the R&B videoscape these days. Though many of the tracks on Songs in A Minor are embellished with adolescent angst, this 20-year-old’s substantial, gorgeously soul-drenched alto putties the cracks between notes with astonishing ease. “Fallin’,” the album’s first single, showcases Keys at her best. She wails plaintively and passionately over rolling blues chords, in the tradition of the greats that this young talent clearly wants to align herself with—Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and Aretha Franklin. She swoops and soars over the spicy, flamenco-fueled melody that opens “Mr. Mann,” one of the many winning tracks gathered here. And she digs deep into a remake of the beloved Prince B-side, “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” packing more heat into her melismatic wails than most singers twice her age. —Sylvia W. Chan

In the crowded world of female R&B you need a unique selling point. Songs in A Minor’s creator Alicia Keys is no different. She plays the piano. She’s classically trained. She was a child prodigy. And at 20 years she’s incredibly soulful, harking back to the old-skool R&B of Aretha Franklin and even further to that of Nina Simone, with a very strong dose of James Brown thrown in (the fantastic “Fallin’” is a dead ringer for “It’s a Man’s World”). This retro-ism is further reinforced in her collaboration with 70s soul legend Isaac Hayes on “Rock Wit U”. However this reliance on strong historical figures is as much a problem as an asset. In truth this fine talent is being plucked too early. At 20 she’s hardly lived enough life to find herself. While she’s got a great voice and exquisite musical skills this album lacks the type of individuality that shines so strongly in artists such as Erykah Badu, Jill Scott or India.Aria. This is perhaps why Keys (surely an invented name) has been well hooked up. Jermaine Dupri, Prince and Brian McKnight are all involved in the song writing process. There’s a lot of classically trained artists out there, from R Kelly to MJ Cole, but as this shows it’s no guarantee of success. There are a few tracks on Songs… that hit the right chord but there’s some bum notes too.—Jake Barnes

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