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HIGHS AND LOWS: Alicia Keys’ Albums Ranked

HIGHS AND LOWS: Alicia Keys’ Albums Ranked Photo Credit:

Here is the forthcoming sixth album from U.S. pop/soul icon Alicia Keys. The thirty-five-year-old enjoyed record sales of twelve-million copies for her debut album, Songs in A Minor. Since then, she has managed to keep her name in the public attention and pushed her sound – her latest L.P. goes against the piano-vocal template and has a more electronic/chart-friendly sound. Perhaps edgier, more sexual and darker than her previous albums: Here addresses fears and sexual liaisons; harsh lessons and self-doubt. It is hard to imagine the young Keys creating an album like Here – both mature and immature in a way; few shades of the debut-era artist remains. Because of that, and with Here available from 4th November, The Metropolist looks at her five-album back catalogue – deciding which albums are class-leading and which are merely so-so.


#5 – As I Am (2007)

Alicia Keys started work on the album in late-2005 and focused more on it throughout 2006. It was not until the following year the album was released – the result of serious focus, experimentation and consideration. Keys felt confident in the album and in love with its newness, urgency and sounds. As I Am received heavy promotion and was prominently featured on U.S. T.V. – ensuring as many people knew about it as possible. MTV featured Keys as their Artist of the Week and there was a lot of speculation and attention given to the record. Perhaps the confidence and exposure was a little too much but showed there was demand and affection for Keys. The album, unlike her previous work, was not as vulnerable and deep as one would hope. A lot of the critical attention focused on the uplifting songs and lack of real emotion and fragility.

No One was the first single and reached number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 – becoming Keys’ third number-one; gaining success in international markets. Not only a top 10 around the world; it was one of a few album tracks that stick in the mind and show some of her early promise. By and large, As I Am is a mixed affair that has its highs but suffers because of its one-dimensional mood and lyrical flaws. Despite the flaws and lack of emotiveness: Keys’ singles picked up Grammy Award nominations – Superwoman won one for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. Those that heralded As I Am noticed Keys’ experimentation and more varied songwriting. More streetwise, soulful and smoky: nothing like what one would expect given her debut. The fact the album is so polished and lacks real edge put many off and not as strong as one hoped.

Perhaps the lack of experience and tender years was the reason behind the lyrical issues. There is little room for vulnerability and sensitivity to come through. Self-confidence is in no short supply but that is the abiding impression: a musician who is defiant and strong but unwilling to share herself with the listener. Perhaps (the lyrics) too reliant on clichés and stock phrases; lacking personal insight and repeating what so many others are saying – not something that was highlighted on Keys’ debut album. Despite the clichés and pop-heavy sound: there is enough in the album to recommend to new fans. Keys would improve and create finer work. As I Am is more impressive because of its energy and experimentation rather than depth, vulnerability and lyrical intelligence. These flaws would be addressed on her follow-up and prove that she was open to critical suggestions and constructive improvements.


#4 – The Element of Freedom (2009)

Following the success of As I Am: many artists would simply repeat themselves and produce an album with the same themes and sounds. Keys, listening to what critics had said about As I Am, decided to address that on The Element of Freedom. Her fourth album found her working at Oven Studios (Long Island) and bringing new producers into the fold – including Toby Gad and Jeff Bhasker. The Element of Freedom departs from the classicist soul sound of her early efforts; instead, featuring more low-tempo ballads and personal numbers. Anyone accusing Keys of being too closed-off and simple-minded on her previous album could not levy that criticism at her here. Much more exposing, personal and sensual than As I Am: Keys was keen to change things and put more of herself out there. With regards recording her new album, Keys started to “find the way to totally be myself and what that meant; figuring out what choices I wanted to make and not make in order to truly honor myself“.

Keys described the album as diverse and balanced: a strong side and vulnerable one, working alongside each other. Edgier and more attacking than her early material but retaining an accessibility and softer side. When appearing on BET’s 106 & Park she described the album thus: “The way that the songs progress [on the album] are gonna take you on a natural high. I just want you to feel a sense of freedom, I want you to feel out-of-the-box, feel inspired, You’re definitely going to be taken on a trip, I know you’re going to be shocked, you’re going to hear things that you probably didn’t think that I would sound like. It’s a journey”. Artists like Genesis and Fleetwood Mac inspired the album’s new direction and critics were keen to emphasise how consistent  The Element of Freedom was. Modern, fresh and well-crafted: a modern soul record with pop touches and a woman pushing herself as a writer.

A more nuanced and compelling album than its predecessor; one that carried some age-old problems. The lyrics, at times trite and banal, were compressed by incredible vocals – some noted how Keys’ vocals were compressed at times and changed its timbre and naturalness. A strong selection of songs and a solid record from a musician willing to incorporate new voices and direction. A few of the problems – that would be redressed later on – are the production values – too much gloss and Keys’ voice being squashed and distorted. The lyrics are often shallow and clichéd and this put many off – hoping Keys had learned lessons from her previous album. The biggest takeaways is Keys opening up more and putting her heart and fears into her work. That is only a good thing – in spite of the problems – and, as stated, showed she was willing to let her guard down and show more of the woman behind the music – and not just producing a string of overly-confident songs that do not linger in the imagination


#3 – Girl on Fire (2012)

If The Element of Freedom was a step from As I Am then Girl on Fire is a leap from its predecessor. The album was conceived following Keys’ marriage to record producer/rapper Swizz Beatz – and the birth of her first child, Egypt. Whilst retaining R&B and soul touches, it goes deeper than The Element of Freedom – there is more emphasis on personal rather than third-person; an insight into her changing lifestyle and recent achievements. There are piano ballads and songs that look at love and motherhood but plenty of fire and energy – best emphasised on the impassioned title cut. Keys explained the changes in style and musical direction: “I’ve stepped more into my business and really… taken control for how I want that to be. So every way that I’ve created now is totally in a new space. It’s more in a true space of who I am and what story it is that I’m trying to tell, what it is I’m going through, what the world is going through. And it’s really important for me to describe that and say that exactly how I see it, period. So, things are just new. The world is new! Everything feels like brand new to me”.

Like her previous work, there was a mixture of R&B and piano ballads; mid-tempo jams and some uplifting declaration. Embracing a more minimalist production value – differing from the polished sound of the previous album – there is more endeavour and adventure here. Keys’ forthcoming album looks more into electro.-pop and embraces themes of sexuality: suggestions of this can be heard throughout Girl on Fire. Not quite as ramped-up and sweaty as new songs In Common: Keys employed electro.-soul, hip-hop and rock together with reggae and soul to create an impressively rounded and consistent album. In terms of the lyrics – always a sore spot – there are aphorisms about relationships and God. Keys, as a narrator, explores stifled relations and transitions into motherhood and self-improvement. In that sense, Girl on Fire is a rebirth and evolution from Keys – the young star looking inwards and using romance in beautiful and tragic ways.

Critics were eager to have their say on the album. Not only (is Girl on Fire) Keys’ catchiest album but one of the subtlest. She managed to create a work that got people singing and together but took the lights down at appropriate times. Keys’ voice and technical ability was never in question: the lyrics on this album were improved and showed more self and revelation. Not only is love and motherhood explored but dispense with easy clichés and create something simple and affecting. An album with little filler and enough explosion to capture the soul – just what critics and detractors required and demanded. Heartfelt, wired and sweet; intimate, likeable and consistent – a much-improved effort. Yes, there was still cliché and lyrical woes but fewer than before. There was reinvention but perhaps not as much as one would hope – that will be fully explored on Here. Those that have wanted to see a more sexual, confident and of-the-moment artist will be satisfied by Here – Girl on Fire was an album that nodded to her previous albums but fell a little short of their overall quality and variation.


#2 – The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003)

Few artists have had as much pressure put on to their shoulders as Alicia Keys following the phenomenal success of Songs in A Minor. That album shifted millions of copies and was a multi-award-winning success. Because of this, there was huge critical pressure to follow that album with something equally successful and astonishing. Not only did The Diary of Alicia Keys get two Grammy Award nods – Songs of the Year for Ain’t Got You; Album of the Year – but its first-week sales were twice that of Songs in A Minor. Those who questioned whether Keys could handle the pressure were given a very emphatic answer: of course she could! A commercial success and critical one, at that – the positive reviews that came in suggested Keys would be in music for many years to follow. The Diary of Alicia Keys is a compendium of neo-soul and contemporary R&B; a combination of modernism and classicism. That was what really struck critical hearts: a young woman who was very fresh and current but imbued with shades of soul greats and elements of bygone artists.

Keys’ combination of street-smarts and classiness defined the album and ensured multiple audiences were seduced and in awe. Around that time (2003) there was doubt whether a soul singer could survive in an industry that was embracing other genres. One of the reasons behind the album’s success is due to Keys nodding to the past and not trying to reinvent soul. There is familiarity, but plenty of original input to be discovered. Whilst many of her similarly-aged peers were petulantly assessing broken love and first-world problems: Keys was maturely assessing relations and the perils of life in a very relatable and fascinating way. The minimalist production and improved lyrics – stronger than her latest work – impressed many and were backed by consistently electric vocals and nuance.

Although The Diary of Alicia Keys created nostalgia and fondness among many critics; there were some that felt the album’s second half sagged and samey balladry. That is perhaps a fair assessment: the strength of the first half makes it’s a tremendous album; there are some definite highlights to be found in the second half. For those not entirely sold – feeling the record boring or wallowing – the fact it was on end-of-year polls for the best album of 2004; Billboard placed the album fifty-fifth on their decade-end rankings; the album won a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album silences any doubters and critics. The album has dated well and sounds relevant and necessary in a time where many Alicia Keys-esque singers are emerging. Many have taken inspiration from the album and take elements of The Diary of Alicia Keys into their work.


#1 – Songs in A Minor (2001)

It is well-deserved that Songs in A Minor takes the number one spot. Released in June 2001 – Keys signed to Columbia Records after graduating high school – it is a sensational debut. Keys had released an album with the label in 1998 – which they rejected. Songs in A Minor (released on J Records after a falling-out with Columbia Records) found Keys write, arrange and produce most of the songs on the album – trivia note: Jane Doe is the only song on the album in the key of A minor. Blending neo-soul, arpeggios and classical piano: a mature and refined collection of songs that show plenty of East Coat hip-hop and edge. Keys was keen to bring together the music she grew up on with her classical training. Running through classical music, blues; soul, jazz and funk: Keys created a gorgeous and haunting album that was able to provide dance, energy and authority.

Critics were quick to praise Songs in A Minor. The balance of contemporary and classical sound was seen as an impressive move by Keys. Compared to the likes of Mary J. Blige – Keys tipped as the figurehead of the nu-soul revolution – the maturity and wisdom (of the music) were heralded by many. It is, perhaps, Alicia Keys’ confidence and naturalness that makes the album so memorable. At once gritty and raw; mutating into a sweet and heartbroken heroine – few artists of her years would be able to accomplish that. Despite some sag and less-appealing songs in the middle of the album: Keys ensures the first and final-third are full of graceful, immediate and stunning songs. Standout cut Fallin’ shows Keys’ incredible range and provokes comparisons to a young Aretha Franklin.

Even those who were not sold on the album were unanimous in their praise of Keys’ voice and commanding presence. On an album that unifies old soul themes and personal heartbreak – it is going to be hard to please critics only interesting in ultra-new, energetic artists. Perhaps Keys was still growing and learning as a lyricist – something she is still refining and working on today – but the sheer vocal force and commitment compensate. Songs in A Minor remains timeless and has aged incredibly well- sounding fresh and revealing nuance fifteen years after its release. The album won five Grammy Awards: Song of the Year, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance; Best R&B Song (Fallin’), Best New Artist and Best R&B Album. Fallin’ was also nominated for Record of the Year. Keys was the second-only female artist to win five Grammy Awards – the other recipient was Lauryn Hill. The sheer success of album standout Fallin’ makes it worth the price of admission alone. It is often ranked in the ‘100 Greatest Songs…’ lists and (Songs in A Minor) one of the finest albums of 2001.


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