Alicia Keys’s decaplatinum Songs in A Minor might have been inspired by NYC’s druggin’ and groovin’ ’70s, but the earnest, slant-hatted Clive Davis discovery’s vibe was pure, vitamin-popping Talent and Work Ethic. She epitomized that fin de siècle, Fast Company con job that, just before the whole thingexploded-imploded, induced pop music’s star-
remaking machinery to anoint everybody from Fred Durst to Beyoncé “young moguls to watch”—the singing, dancing corollaries to Jeff Bezos and Steve Jurvetson. Even the faux-intimate MTV Diary series, with its bait-and-switch promise of sexy revelation, could easily have extended its tease line to “You thought you knew, but you had no idea . . . How Many Hours I Practice.” The dotcom boomtime message: Stardom is a lot of work.
Then came 9-11. Irony was dead, but we needed some roll-up-your-sleeves role models. And our soulful Fame School pachel-belle emerged, with A Minor‘s ambient Ambien of heartfelt nostalgia, unironic emotion, realwoman essentialism, and goody-two-shoes études. For some of us, the thin entreaties and tasteful arpeggiations of Clive’s Aretha-for-the-aughts didn’t match the Muppety quirk of Macy Gray, the space-babe jelly of Kelis, or the smooth joy of Jill Scott. But for her young-girl fans, she’s got more grit than Britney, more nuance than Beyoncé, and less Fat Joe than Ashanti. She writes her own songs, covers Prince, congratulates us for our passions, and asks nothing but a nod of affirmation and a donation to the Save the Music Fund. After a year off in which that other well-mannered serious musician Norah Jones nabbed all the awards for record-company-propping, Alicia Keys is back.
The hard-work heyday may be over—true to recession form, we’re now OD-ing on largesse à la Rich Girls, It’s Good to Be . . . , and The Fabulous Life of—and with the record-buying public shrinking to a layer of technophobic fogies, it remains to be seen if Keys’s remember-my-name tenacity will bring the tasteful to the malls in Norah numbers. The Diary of Alicia Keys, brings a bouncier ahh-oop than last time, though aside from the buried “If I Ain’t Got You,” it’s devoid of karaoke wailers like “Fallin.’ ” The video-ready first single, “You Don’t Know My Name,” a slow jam with ooohs that tip from Riperton-style searing to squeaky windshield wiper, finds our braided one playing waitress, ringing up a hot customer for a date. Her charming fantasy of their “first kiss happen on the third date” is as heated as it is demure. Keys streets up Gladys Knight with “If I Was Your Woman” and might get fan points for effort, but her hip-hop “aw, aw, aw”s fail to convince. She goes for and gets some Mavis Staples scrape on the Timbaland-produced “Heat Wave” takeoff “Heartburn,” but the higher register shout-commands beg for some jiffy-pop Missy Elliott sass.
When, on Diary, over piano that provides an unpleasant I Love the ’80s Strikes Back whiff, Keys croons, “Your secret’s safe with me,” you wish she’d keep her vocal techniques a little more secret as well. You can almost see the notations scribbled on a score—”growl,” “enunciate,” “Nelly Furtado.” In the absence of hooks and other surface content, these are songs about the work of singing. They sound like primers, and maybe that glimpse into the elemental, the exposure of the effort and the recording process, will appeal to those Norah Jones fans who liked the live-room transparency of her open-hearted demo. No doubt Diary is gonna soundtrack some of the same living room happy hours as A Minor and Come Away With Me. But for pop fans looking for fun and escape, there’s not much fabulous life here. And we’re definitely past that charmed moment of late-’90s empathy for strivers—that zenith of fetishizing the labor of the star.