As I Am

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Some people are under the impression that I hate Alicia Keys. It’s not that I hate her — it’s just that I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid.

In 2001 the Clive Davis protégé was touted as “Bigge meets Beethoven,” – a piano playing prodigy that fused the classic soul of the 60s with the grit of hip hop destined to breathe new life in a sinking genre.

Then I heard Songs In A Minor, a solid but unconvincing effort to persuade me that Alicia Keys was in fact the second coming. There were some highlights, like the first single, “Fallin’,” but part of that song’s allure came in its sound — credit that belongs to James Brown considering the song lifts heavily from “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

Sure, she did great covers of Prince and Brian McKnight on the album, but so do most Top 10 contestants from American Idol. By the way, another track from her debut boosts “inspiration” from someone else’s composition: “Loving You” owes a bit of gratitude to Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” I suppose when you’re affiliated with Clive Davis, selective listings of samples and interpolations are a right, not a privilege.

With her sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys, the would-be savior of soul delivered the remarkable single, “You Don’t Know My Name.” Beautifully sang, written, and produced, the song is by far one of the best R&B singles released this decade. Equally grand is its follow-up, “If I Ain’t Got You.” But the rest of the album is a mixed bag. Her lauded songwriting capabilities weren’t highlighted on songs like “Dragon Days.”

“Like a damsel in distress, I’m stressing you”.

Seriously?

Though she faltered on some songs, Alicia showed promised that she is indeed capable of producing her own classic album.

However, that album is not As I Am. While many will sneer at the suggestion, more times than not, Alicia Keys comes across just as pre-packaged and transparent as the very pop contemporaries her handlers hail her to be the antithesis to. Indeed not all gimmicks are created equal.

When the hype machine for As I Am was set in motion, the sound of the album was described as “Janis Joplin meets Aretha Franklin.” Modesty aside, once you throw the weight of those names around, it’s understandable that expectations become high. Word soon followed that Linda Perry and John Mayer were being added to the production roster. Let the push for bigger audiences, and displaying ‘growth’ and ‘maturity’ to secure an album of the year nomination begin.

I’m sure she’ll get it. She’ll sell millions of albums, win a bevy of awards, and continue to be celebrated as a phenom. But in a current climate of music that will reward people that can come up with glorified advertisements for expensive bottles of liquor, shoes, and designer duds, there’s only so much value you can place in an industry hailing someone for being so good because everyone else is so bad.

Is the album that bad? No, but it’s not as good as her record company’s press release will have you believe it to be either.

The kickoff single “No One,” while catchy, features Keys offering a shouting-inspired method of singing – leaving her sounding incredibly off pitch and leading one to wonder what effects this will have on her vocal chords in the future.

That same fear is shared on other songs included on As I Am. The idea of her singing out of her natural range may be intended to convey pain and conviction, but it only makes me want to send a couple of tea bags her way.

And when you’re heralded as a songwriter, you expect more than an onslaught of cliché’s. There are generic qualities to “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Superwoman.” Though the former is intended to be considered personal, and the latter empowering, both are cliché-ridden fodder with predictable production values. Does soul come in a can now or something?

“Sure Looks Good To Me” doesn’t help matters, offering trite musings like, “So, don’t rain on my parade. Life’s too short to waste one day.”

Someone strip Alicia of her umbrella. She’s capable of so much more than this.

I know because I listened to the album’s best track, “Like You’ll Never See Me Again,” which delivers on the promise of “You Don’t Know My Name.” It’s a dreamy, sensual groove that effectively captures the era where Prince reigned supreme in all of his purple splendor.

Other gems on As I Am include “Lesson Learned,” a joyous collaboration with John Mayer, and the nostalgia-driven “Wreckless Love.”

None of her albums have yet to wow me, but these songs remind me that Alicia Keys still has the potential to. But when her run of the mill offerings can get above average praise, what’s going to be the driving force that pushes her to dig a little deeper and aim higher?

I’m hoping it comes from Alicia herself. I may not be a believer, but I’m not a complete skeptic. She’s adept at rehashing other people’s classics, but I want to hold on to the belief that she can craft her own any day now.

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