In the aftermath of Jill Scott’s surprising breakthrough last year and in what is year four of the Badu evolution, there have been several remarkable debuts. The perpetually over-hyped India.Arie, Syleena Johnson, Sunshine Anderson have all emerged as solid singer/songwriters running the gamut of neo-soul exotic, post-modern chitlin’ circuit chanteuse and the “round-the-way” baby-girl. While this critic suspects that much of India.Arie’s debut project was cautiously manufactured somewhere in Kadar-world (I believe there’s a Dionne Farris somewhere up in her spirit that need to be loosed), all three of these artists, with various degrees of difference, were allowed to be active agents in the music they produced. The significance of this fact is probably lost on most contemporary pop audiences. As recently as a decade ago it was unusual for women artists to wield any real influence in the production of their projects unless they were aligned with an indie label, and such autonomy was practically non-existent for new women artists, Sarah McLachlan notwithstanding. Such autonomy was practically non-existent within R&B. Even as Beyonce coyly tries to get us to believe that she is an “independent” woman and a “survivor”, the reality is that outside of the neo/alternative/organic soul universe, a great many R&B songstresses wear sequin dresses, long black boots, halter tops (or too-tight T-shirts) and sing songs written and produced by men.
And such were the plans at Columbia Records for a 17-year-old musical prodigy named Alicia Keys. Unfortunately for the label Keys had other plans and after an amicable spilt from Jermaine Dupree’s So So Def camp, Keys was signed to Arista by Clive Davis who bought out her contract at Columbia. Keys subsequently followed Davis to J Records, a new label founded by the industry veteran that would later add Luther Vandross and Busta Rymes to its roster. Like John Hammond before him, who was credited with “discovering” Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, Davis has had a particular eye for talent during his 40-year sojourn in the recording industry. Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and Whitney Houston are but three of the names that Davis has been credited with introducing to the pop world, thus interests and expectations are obviously high for Songs in A Minor, the debut recording of the now 20-year-old Alicia Keys.
In the current world of R&B where promotion gets reduced to simply insinuating that this or that artist is the next D’Angelo, Badu, Jill Scott, or Maxwell (take your pick), Keys is a multi-faceted vocalist, songwriter, musician and a legitimate talent, who possesses deep purple vocals that betray her lithe and lean physical frame. A product of New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen”, Keys was exposed to a wide array of genres as a youth being heavily influenced by the classical piano, classic soul and the hard-bop minimalism of mid-1990s east coast hip-hop. After a couple of false starts — Keys appeared on the So So Def Christmas special and recording in 1997, as well as contributing tracks to the Men in Black and Shaft soundtracks — Keys’s Songs in A Minor is a testament to her desire (and patience) to create a project that most reflects her sensibilities as a 20-year-old woman and as a musical, cultural, and racial hybrid. As she noted in an interview “I’m proud to be mentioned with people like Jill Scott and Erykah because I feel they are part of a breakthrough . . . for years women relied on men for songs, but now women are expressing the truth of a new generation. That’s my goal too.”
Following the requisite “intro” sequence, in this case, Keys playing Tchaikovsky to a hip-hop back-beat, Songs in A Minor opens with the track “Girlfriend”, which samples the ODB/Big Baby Jesus/Osiris hip-hop classic “Brooklyn Zoo”. The track which features Jermaine Dupri (JD) was “leaked” to urban radio earlier in the year to introduce audiences to Keys, hence the inclusion of JD on what is essentially a banal hip-hop/R&B track — as if anyone really wants to hear JD rap — and as such it is outside of the basic aesthetic conventions of Songs in A Minor. In contrast to the early “feeler”, the “official” lead single “Fallen”, combines Keys’s natural blues register with a subtle, and brilliantly so, sample of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”. Keys opens the track acapella with the lyrics “I keep on falling in love with you” drawing out the phrase “in love” for seven seconds before squeezing the phrase “with you” into the last bar of the intro as she begins her piano line. The intro at once attempt to draw the audience into the “deep blue” spaces of forbidden love that the song documents but also invokes the gospel tradition, made famous in classic soul recordings, of singing behind the beat.
The full weight of the James Brown sample is made clear in the video for “Fallen”, which opens with Keys sitting at a solo piano and closes with Keys visiting her incarcerated boyfriend. While jailhouse visits have become an all too common occurrence in black popular culture, the video deepens the significance of these visits as a busload of mothers, girlfriends, wives, and baby-mamas travel from an urban center to the kind of rural community — think of the north country in New York State — where new prisons, along with the compulsory K-mart and Home Depot, often get constructed. While the primary discourse about the prison industrial complex centers on the unprecedented incarceration rates of black and Latino men, the video flips the script to highlight the equally unprecedented incarceration rates of women of all colors and black women in particular. Footage of the women and children traveling on the bus explicitly invokes the temporary “imagined communities” — to use Benedict Anderson’s term — of families “torn apart” by the absence of a patriarchal figure. Thus the pastoral scene of “men” working in the field, evoking the image of southern chain gangs and the presumable emasculation of black masculinity that the realities of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation heightened, are meant to reinforce the oppressive nature of prison labor.
Ironically the video reveals that it was, in fact, a group of women who were working in the fields. This becomes dramatically clear when the women in the field raise their heads and sing along with Keys “I Keep on fallin’ in love with you,” suggesting the ways that female incarceration rates are deeply imbricated in the efforts of these women to protect men who are likely involved in illicit activities. The best example of this widely circulated case of Kemba Smith who was incarcerated as an accomplice to her drug dealing boyfriend despite not having an active knowledge of his illicit activities. (Smith was later pardoned as one of Bill Clinton’s last midnight moves, moves in which he inexplicably failed to pardon Leonard Peltier.) The video’s ability to make these ironic claims is buttressed by the use of James’s Brown’s “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” sample countering the general misconceptions about the increasingly high rates in which black and Latino women are incarcerated and subjected to hard labor. The video offers one of the rare occasions when an artist and video director, in this case, Chris Robinson, are in sync aesthetically creating a new object d’art that stands beyond the original track, bringing a new depth of meaning and passion to the original song.
None of the tracks on Songs in A Minor explicitly address any of the kinds of issues that the video for “Fallen” raises. “The Life” which evokes Curtis Mayfield’s “Gimmie Your Love” come the closest as Keys dispenses her philosophy of life and struggle “cause when it rains it pours isn’t life worth more / I don’t even know what I’m hustlin’ for / You got to do what you gotta do just to make it through all the hard times that gonna face you.” Keys’ concerns over survival are perhaps much more deeply invoked on the track “Troubles” which is one of the more accomplished tracks on the project. In the song, Keys is “troubled” about her “hustler” boyfriend. Like many young vocalists Keys struggles to find her own unique phrasing and as such she willingly borrows from a wide range of available styles. “Troubles” is probably the best example these choices. When she sings the song’s opening verse “Feel like the world is closing on me / Feel like my dreams will never come to me / I keep on slipping deeper into myself and I’m scared, so scared,” Keys dually references Billie Holiday and Erykah Badu. Meanwhile, on the song’s chorus, Key’s vocals recall that of Faith Evans. Towards the end of the song, Keys riffs a classic drive section — what they use to call going to church — which is overdubbed on top of the song’s chorus. In what is one of the most stirring moments on the recording, Keys improvises on the song’s chorus repeating the phrase “but you’re a hustler” twice before the phrase literally collapses under the weight of her emotions into a soulful moan. While the moment is reminiscent of Al Green classic song “Sha, La, La, (Make Me Happy)”, Keys sounds strikingly like a young Teena Marie.
Like Holiday before her and her contemporaries Badu and Mary J. Blige, Keys is less concerned about technical proficiency and more concerned with rendering musical moments as authentic and visceral as possible. While such choices are likely to be read as the product of a lack of vocal training, which is heightened by her liberal borrowing of various vocal styles, I would like to suggest that they are conscious decisions on her part. The referencing of Holiday is particularly instructive in this case. In Farah Jasmine Griffin’s provocative and important new book If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday, vocalist Abbey Lincoln is quoted as saying that Holiday was “unadorned as far as her talent was concerned, the sound of her voice. She didn’t try to sound good or anything, she didn’t try to prove that she was great singer. She never made one sound that was insincere.”
Keys’ own voice is perhaps most audibly present on the track “A Woman Worth” which can be easily read as a thematic revision of R. Kelly’s “A Woman’s Fed Up”. Other standout tracks include the Minnie Riperton-ish (minus the five-octave range of course) “Butterflies”, which Keys composed when she was 14 years old and the mesmerizing “Caged Bird”. One of the most affecting songs on the recording is the gospelly “hidden” track “Lovin’ You Is Easy”. There are of course also so misses and near-misses. Like the Keys collaboration with former So So Def label mate JD, her collaboration with Kandi (she of X-Scape fame) brings little of any substance to “Jane Doe”. The track “Goodbye” sounds like it was written for the annoyingly cute teen-trio 3LW. Keys’s version of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me” is credible, but falls well short of the original or Stephanie Mill’s version in the early 1980s.
Beyond the requisite hype, the best testament to Keys’s self-defined creative independence, other than the music itself, has been the exuberance that Clive Davis has exhibited while parading Keys around at industry showcases such as his pre-Grammy party (she followed Gladys Knight and Angie Stone on stage) and her invite-only set at New York’s Bottom Line (recalling Donny Hathaway’s legendary Bitter End sets). In contrast to his heavy-handed input early in Whitney Houston’s career, where he allegedly hand-picked producers and music (Michael Narada Walden for poppy-crossover and folks like Kasheif for the brown folks at “urban” radio), Davis has given Keys the freedom and creative control that she craved. While comparisons to the prodigious talents of Roberta Flack, whose debut First Take (1969) may be the most brilliant of her formidable career, Prince and D’Angelo, at comparable stages in their careers are premature and overstated, Songs in A Minor is a distinct and oft-times brilliant debut from an artist who clearly has a fine sense of her creative talents and has struggled to make sure they are represented in the best way.