Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today we revisit Alicia Keys’ outstanding 2001 debut, a self-produced, Chopin-inspired R&B album that blazed a unique path to mainstream superstardom.
Alicia Keys had a near-complete version of her debut album, Songs in A Minor, in the summer of 1998 when her label, Columbia Records, decided she should go in a different direction. Yes, she was a classically trained pianist and the rare 17-year-old prodigy who sang, wrote, arranged, and produced her own music, but maybe she could play piano less and be more like, say, Christina Aguilera? Maybe she could lose a little weight and show some skin, too?
“They wanted me, the tomboy from Hell’s Kitchen, to become the next teen pop idol,” Keys wrote in her memoir. The label had already brought in big-name producers to strip away the retro-soul sound that separated artists like Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Jill Scott, and Keys from the stream of sex-driven R&B in the late-’90s. Keys found the recording process crushing and chose instead to partner with producer Kerry “Krucial” Brothers to create a dexterous blend of classical music and soul that merged young-adult melodrama with Beethoven. Columbia execs told her it sounded like one long demo.
The label was, of course, laughably wrong. Keys left Columbia in early 1999 to sign with Clive Davis at Arista Records and later his new label, J Records, where she could pilot her own vision. By November 2001, she had a No. 1 album and Rolling Stone had crowned her “The Next Queen of Soul.” By March 2002, she’d gone five-times platinum and won five Grammys, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year for her No. 1 hit “Fallin’.”
Songs in A Minor arrived amid the birth of iTunes and the sensual empowerment of Destiny’s Child. Britney Spears and JC Chasez’s boy band were on their third albums, and Usher was gaining momentum for 8701, about to crush pop music off rock-hard abs alone. Then came Keys with her self-produced, Chopin-inspired compositions about self-worth, survival, and practical pursuits of happiness. She sang of profound love and desire, emotional and career stability. But this was also a dark time. Songs in A Minor spent a third week atop the Billboard charts in the same week that Aaliyah’s self-titled album bowed at No. 2—just before the singer’s death and a month before 9/11. Keys found herself at the center of a pop landscape where she and India.Arie became the new ambassadors of neo-soul.
Keys’ accolades were much-deserved, but they were also rich with subtext. She was a biracial girl from New York who performed in crop tops and blazers and wore beads in her cornrows like Stevie Wonder. She subverted expectations of what a classical musician should look like in a genre associated with stately white composers in starchy suits. Keys played up the culture clash, often seeming to materialize on stage in leather Going Out tops, headscarves, and floor-length furs—and suddenly in front of a grand piano. On the intro of Songs in A Minor, “Piano & I,” she embraces her position as a star over an instrumental that builds from the operatic hum of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” to jolting drums. “I didn’t know I was here,” she says. “Do you know my name?”
Before she legally changed it, she was Alicia Augello Cook, raised in Hell’s Kitchen by her mother, Terri Augello, a part-time actress and paralegal. Keys avoided publicly addressing her father’s absence in her life early on because she didn’t want to play into stereotypes about Black fathers—her mom is white, her dad Black. She discovered classical music when her kindergarten teacher introduced her to a piano. Keys became enchanted. At age 7, she began practicing the Suzuki Method and took up jazz at 14. Hip-hop, soul, and classical music all spoke to her. “Biggie and Marvin told me, write what you know; you don’t have to make it up, it’s right there,” she told Rolling Stone in 2001.
When Keys was 14, a vocal coach at the Harlem Police Athletic League’s community center introduced her to his brother, Jeff Robinson, who saw in her an artist who could comfortably embody Mary J. Blige and Mozart and became her manager. Keys was 16 when she dropped out of Columbia University, a few weeks into her freshman year, and moved to a studio in Rosedale, Queens, where she and Brothers built the bones of Songs in A Minor. In the interim, Keys raised her profile through compilations. In 1997, she placed the silky Badu-esque record “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)” on the Men in Black soundtrack and contributed “Little Drummer’s Girl” to Jermaine Dupri’s 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas.
Even after Clive Davis signed her, though—he’d launched J Records after being ousted from Arista—and after she completed Songs in A Minor, Keys struggled to find an audience for “Fallin’,” a Jackson 5-inspired ballad about a relationship that pivots drastically from despair to precarious bliss. Urban radio didn’t get the vibe. Keys was the type of performer you had to witness in person. Davis pulled his Ace of Spades and sent a letter, along with a demo video of Keys on the piano, to a media figure known for making cultural entities out of hidden talent and who happened to have a talk show with millions of viewers. In June 2001, Keys stood next to Oprah in a tuxedo jacket with pink satin penguin wings and made her nationally televised debut on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
“Fallin’” is the type of ballad so robust it feels spiritual. Keys swings from a swelling falsetto (“How do you give me so much pleasure,” she begins) to a hoarse alto (“And cause me so much pain,” she exhales), expressing shades of fatigue in each line. She told Rolling Stone she “thought it’d be so ill for someone really young to sing a crazy deep song that you’d be like, ‘How does that person know what that feels like?’” She got the idea for the music video—which follows her on the way to visit a boyfriend in prison—from an article in F.E.D.S. magazine about a woman named Santra Rucker who received 13 consecutive life sentences. The record became so ubiquitous, it prompted Simon Cowell to later playfully ban contestants from singing and ruining it on American Idol, the sign of a song becoming an undeniable piece of the pop canon.
Her follow-up hit, “A Woman’s Worth”—a feminist anthem inspired, in earnest, by the L’Oreal slogan, “Because you’re worth it”—is Keys’ “Respect” for a budding digital generation. It’s not as bombastic as Aretha’s masterpiece, of course, but it pulls off the difficult task of turning message music into sultry pop goodness. The video opens with a shot of Keys walking down a sidewalk in full 2000s regalia—hip-huggers and a bomber jacket—pulling a young boy aside to school him on the meaning of chivalry.
At the heart of the album is a teenager exploring emotions. Keys wrote “Butterflyz” at 14 and “Troubles,” when she was 17, but her youth shows more in songwriting than in vocals or arrangements. On “Butterflyz,” she describes the sweet ascent into love with childlike brevity: “Joy is what you bring/I wanna give you everything.” Reading the lyrics on paper undersells the song’s tangible charm. In sequence, the track transitions smoothly into the wounded refrains of “Why Do I Feel So Sad,” a clear-eyed meditation on the familiarity of heartbreak. But Keys is at her most captivating lyrically on “Rock wit U,” a whirlwind of strings and flute dashes performed by Isaac Hayes and paired with a pompous bass that makes it perfect for the soundtrack of Shaft. (The song did appear on the soundtrack for the 2000 sequel.) “There’s no escape from the spell you have placed/Leaving my heart and my mind,” Keys sings in a hauntingly low tone. “Foolish am I if I was to try/To ever leave you behind.”
Over 16 tracks, Keys’ voice cracks beautifully and curls into tender, sometimes sanctified moans, her vocals neither straining nor very robust but rather incredibly persuasive. In a 2001 review, Mark Anthony Neal describes her vocal quality using a quote from singer Abbey Lincoln in Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book If You Can’t Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday. “She didn’t try to sound good or anything, she didn’t try to prove that she was a great singer,” Lincoln said of Holiday. “[But] she never made one sound that was insincere.” This profound sincerity saves Songs in A Minor from slipping into maudlin territory, yet the album’s most melancholy parts leave me wishing for more moments like “Mr. Man,” featuring the euphonious tones of Jimmy Cozier over swirling strings. The two sound as if they’re literally waltzing as they sing. Keys’ cover of the less widespread Prince record “How Come You Don’t Call Me” (née “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore”) honors the original’s seductive funk while adding crescendoed moans and wails at the end: “Why must ya torture me,” she sings as the track fades into “Fallin’.”
The album’s most dated tracks are the ones whose concepts seem to mirror the scandalous club records of the 2000s, like Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style (Oops!).” In this case, it’s “Jane Doe,” where Keys gets territorial with another woman, and “Girlfriend,” a throbbing, New Jack Swing number about irrational jealousy. Both times, Keys’ heartfelt enthusiasm and bravado on the piano make the records more compelling and unique than they should be. She practices more vocal restraint on this album than she does on some of her later records (“Superwoman,” “Girl on Fire”) that feel as if she pulled them from a grab bag labeled “Empowerment Anthems.”
Keys’ second and third albums, The Diary of Alicia Keys and As I Am, fine-tune the classical blueprint of Songs in A Minor into elegant throwback soul. Her best songs—“Wreckless Love,” “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart”—find subtle ways to pair her shameless idealism with real urgency. Sometimes she overdoes it, but not here.
The summer before college, I listened to “Troubles” in pensive reflection while sobbing into a book of bad poems. Alone on my basement futon, I wondered the same thing as Keys did: “Why does it feel that my mind is constantly trying to pull me down?” (No answer.) And “How long will I feel so out of place?” (Forever, it’s OK.) On the shiny gospel soul of “Lovin U,” Keys both embraces and frets over the promise of committed love, above saintly organs. “If I gave you forever/Would you take care of me?” she asks a hopeful life partner. As ever, she’s posing life’s eternally simple rhetorical questions.