Songs in A Minor (J Records)
On "Girlfriend," Alicia Keys' debut single, Ol' Dirty Bastard is growling in the background (sampled, of course, from "Brooklyn Zoo," along with those plodding keyboard chords), and the beat is a classic hip-hop pattern—triple-bass thump followed with a simple snare hit. Keys strides onto the track with New Jack Swing sass: "You say she's just a girl that is your friend . . . I think I'm jealous of your girlfriend." How dare you be up late at night talking to her on the phone, letting her steal you away from me, she's asking. It's the scorned counterpart track to "You Make Me Wanna," Usher's 1999 doozy about a man drawn to the comforts of his female friend after she counsels him about how to reconcile with his girlfriend.
Here, the girlfriend is all the wiser to her man's chicanery. Pleads Keys, "You said that she's the one who helped you see how deep you're in love with me/And intentions were not to get in between but I see possibilities/Can you say that you feel I'm the best thing in your life?" It's a simple, instantly catchy track. Produced by Jermaine Dupri, a man who specializes in this sort of idiot savant pop hit, it carries quick resonance. What sets it apart is Keys, her fey voice confident but also revealing subtle textures of self-doubt. At song's end, dropping the diva pose, she purrs hungrily into the mike, "It's enough to make a nigga go crazy." Again, she evokes a potent transition in urban music history, this time the tender moment in "I'll Be There for You/You're All I Need" when Method Man embraces his girlfriend as his "nigga." Transcending traditional gender boundaries, it showed that a woman could be everything and more, even to a hardrock thug. On "Girlfriend," Keys flips it to her own ends, collapsing the dialectics between girl and woman, priss and thug.
But don't let the gruff taste, or the badass swagger, fool you. "Girlfriend" is a token, an aural illusion if you will. Utterly convincing and authentic, it manages to overpower Keys' true gifts as a songwriter, arranger, and producer. It's a calculated nod to the urban audience, something that will go down easy on the radio to pave the way for the rest of Songs in A Minor, Keys' first album. That's wise, because the rest of her excellent album is the antithesis of mainstream R&B—moody, ballad-driven, quiet storm-nostalgic, savvy, polished with a bit of rough edge. Oh yeah, and she's only 19.
The youth angle would be easy to exploit. A spot could certainly be held for Keys on the teen-pop spectrum somewhere among Christina Aguilera, Lil Bow Wow, and Samantha Mumba. But Keys is assured enough to know what she likes. And, having been burned once before by the industry, thanks to an aborted project with Columbia Records, it seems that she's unwilling to settle for what some label tells her to do. The result: a collection of decidedly down-tempo tracks that feels thoroughly intimate, and that references everything from late '80s R&B (on "Troubles"), to the Supremes and Whitney Houston (on "Goodbye"), to Prince (whose "How Come You Don't Call Me" is covered here in stunning fashion). Take "Fallin'": While clubs were spinning "Girlfriend," this shimmering track snuck its way onto MTV. It's heavy-handed, and deliberately so, opening with vocals only. Then the piano slides in, followed by the gospel choir interjection. Finally, the high hat and the bass kick in, completing an orchestral ode to romantic confusion, conducted by Keys to a stirring climax. On "Rock Wit U," Keys borrows strings and Rhodes keys from the Isaac Hayes Orchestra, letting them play out for a good two minutes before she steps in for her vocal turn. It's admirable restraint, especially for a girl with something to say: "I stay and walk this life with you, no matter what we make or do/Dead broke, no job, no house, no ride/I'm gonna stay right by your side."
Like another ODB-friendly chanteuse, Mariah Carey, Keys isn't scared to flirt with street cred to toughen up her look. She may not have Carey's pipes, but her hip-hop tendencies are far more sincere and believable. But more importantly, while Carey didn't start songwriting until late in her career, Keys does it all, from playing the piano to arranging the material to singing her own backing vocals. While the older Carey struggles to keep up with the Bad Boys, Keys is post-hop, a musician so confident in her abilities that she's willing to lay them out for view practically unadorned. As a result, Songs in A Minor feels remarkably small for such a big girl.