Alicia Keys - Biography
By David Downs
American neo soul, R&B, and pop singer Alicia Keys went platinum with her 2001 debut album Songs in A Minor (2001 J Records) and has gone on to dominate the landscape of American divas. Raised in New York City’s most rugged neighborhoods and most elite schools, she interpolates Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and Toni Braxton with originality and ease. A nine-time Grammy Award winner, Keys has sold more than twenty million albums worldwide. Her 2003 follow-up album, The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003 J Records), was certified platinum seven times. Her live album, Unplugged (2005 J Records), has sold two million since its release in 2005, and 2007’s As I Am (2007 J Records) marked her fourth consecutive debut at number one on The Billboard 200. Keys’ singles “Girlfriend,” “You Don’t Know My Name,” and “No One” rank among the most memorable radio hits of the era. Although she was only 20 years old when she broke into the industry with Songs in A Minor, Keys is becoming a more dominant force on the musical landscape as she matures.
Alicia Augello-Cook was born in Harlem in 1981 to an Irish-Italian mother and Jamaican father. When Alicia was two, her father left and the only child was raised by her mother, who was a paralegal and actress. Alicia’s maternal grandfather worked in radio and acted in the iconic 1960’s TV shows The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Following in the family tradition, Alicia played a bit part on The Cosby Show and received voice lessons by the age of five. She began piano lessons at the age of seven and wrote her first song – about her grandfather’s death – at 11 years of age. Alicia attended the Professional Performance Arts School of Manhattan and majored in choir. She met Beyoncé Knowles when was 13, and the following year she met Usher and her manager Jeff Robinson. By age fifteen, Alicia was signed to a label but reportedly felt overwhelmed when asked to produce her debut record. Working with different producers only amplified her anxiety about being unoriginal. Among the producers she worked with was Kerry Brothers, who would later be instrumental in Alicia’s rise to fame.
Alicia tested out of high school at the age of 16 and enrolled in Columbia University, but she later dropped out to sign a record deal with Arista Records. She changed her name to Alicia Keys and contributed her first major track, “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing),” to the soundtrack Men in Black: The Album (1997 Columbia). The deal for a single didn’t pan out and much of the material was shelved. Keys left Arista in 2000 for record mogul Clive Davis’ new imprint, J Records.
Davis gave Keys’ debut album every advantage. Songs in A Minor (2001 J Records) was produced by Kerry Brothers, a Brooklyn native who liked break beats and classical strings. He was a good match for the budding diva, as he was a multi-instrumentalist and a song writer to boot. “Fallin’” features piano paired with a simple drum beat that serves up Keys’ remarkably soulful voice on a platter. The debut shows that she has range and body, even if tracks like “Troubles” demonstrate the limits of her songwriting abilities. Keys had yet to offer narrative depth or layers, but that didn’t hinder the album from selling six million copies. “Fallin’” became a Billboard Hot 100 number one, a Top 40 Mainstream number one, and Keys won five Grammys in 2002 for Best R&B Album, Best R&B Song, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Song of the Year.
In 2003, Keys released the Brothers-produced The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003 J Records), with help from producer Timbaland on the funky track “Heartburn.” “Karma” features horn stabs and violin crescendos paired with a mid-tempo drum machine beat. But any deviation from the Keys’ neo soul formula melts away in the glare of the mega hit “If I Ain’t Got You.” Straight from the Aretha Franklin playbook, the soft piano and muted trap kit give a wide berth to Keys’ highly emotional and soulful delivery. “If I Ain’t Got You” became a Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Singles number one and a Top 40 Mainstream number nine. The Michael Jackson-esque soul jam “You Don't Know My Name” hit three on the Billboard Hot 100 and “Karma” reached seven on the Pop 100. In 2005, The Diary of Alicia Keys won Keys four more Grammys. At about this time, rumors began to swirl about who she was dating, with all eyes toward Brothers.
In 2004, Keys released a poetry and lyrics collection called Tears for Water, and became an ambassador for the relief organization Keep a Child Alive. She also inducted her idol Prince into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before raising millions of dollars in funding for HIV and AIDS medicine for developing countries. In 2007, Keys would release photo book called How Can I Keep from Singing?: Transforming the Lives of African Children and Families Affected by AIDS.
In 2005, Keys recorded an MTV Unplugged show that would produce her first live release, Unplugged (2005 J Records). Keys and sixteen supporting musicians deliver exceptionally refined live versions of Keys’ hits as well as covers. She delivers Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” and performs a duet with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.” Unplugged yielded mixed reviews, with critics noting the continued lack of depth to her writing. However, “Unbreakable” made it to thirty-four on the Billboard Hot 100.
Keys turned toward the screen in 2006, playing a hitwoman in Smokin’ Aces with Ben Affleck. She also appeared in 2007’s The Nanny Diaries and formed a television production company called Big Pita, Little Pita. Although she presented a stable image to the public, she has said in interviews that she nearly suffered a nervous breakdown after her grandmother died. She felt surrounded by dependents and escaped to tour Egypt for three weeks. She explained that the short break was crucial to her well-being, possibly reflecting how little she had lived outside of the spotlight. Around this time, Bob Dylan lovingly referred to her on his song “Thunder on the Mountain” from Modern Times (2006 Columbia). Rumors still gathered about who Keys was dating, but she revealed little about her personal life. In 2007, she swatted down rumors that she was dating her producer Brothers. She maintains that she will do her best to hide her personal life from the public as long as she can.
Key’s third album, As I Am (2007 J Records), finds Keys on pretty solid footing. She channels both Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, enlisting songwriter Linda Perry for “The Thing About Love,” and John Mayer for “Lessons Learned.” “Superwoman” offers piano driven pop gold, while “No One” and “Like You'll Never See Me Again” drips with Braxton-esque R&B. Within ten hours of being released to radio, “No One” became one of the fastest moving and highest charting singles on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. “Like You’ll Never See Me Again” became a Billboard Hot 100 number twelve. “Superwoman” and “Teenage Love Affair” also charted.
In 2008, Keys opened the Grammy Awards, singing along with Frank Sinatra on a screen above the stage before winning Best Female R&B Performance and Best R&B Song for her hit “No One.” Keys also found more success on screen with the film adaptation of The Secret Life of Bees, co-starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, and Jennifer Hudson. The film earned $11.1 million in its first week. In 2009 she released The Element Of Freedom, furthering her presence in popular culture when Jay-Z sampled her song "Empire State Of Mind", producing one of that year's biggest singles, in addition to several tracks from the record hitting the charts. Her latest is titled Girl On Fire (2012.)