Alicia Keys has walked the gap between the aching soul/R&B of the '70s and the slick, club-savvy, bling-adorned hip-hop that has been the 26 year-old's milieu, like it or not, since she emerged as a child prodigy-in-waiting in 2001.
Unfortunately, as evidenced by her third effort, "As I Am," out Tuesday, she's still walking that dark valley, making a valiant effort to close the gap.
Keys is a bit of an anomaly. Unlike so many of her peers, she's a trained musician who, although she's no virtuoso, is clearly an above-average keyboardist, songwriter and singer. She's comfortable with relatively complex harmony, knows some Bach etudes, certainly, and pronounces Chopin's name correctly. It's apparent Stevie Wonder is an important constellation in her galaxy, as are Roberta Flack and Gladys Knight. Keys knows music.
Yet Keys wants to make music that is relevant to her generation, and her generation is all about hip-hop.
Keys' quandary comes down to her inability to marry hip-hop to classic soul and pop-classical flourishes. This does not indicate a failure of her musical imagination. It's simply a curse of the age. Keys is overqualified to make the sort of music that will sell to the people she wants to reach.
"As I Am" is an album laced with an attitude of defiance. One might wonder, reasonably, what Keys is feeling so defensive about -- she was a hit right out of the box, was given a debut album promotional budget by J Records head Clive Davis that could've made a serious dent in the national debt of a small country, has racked up nearly 20 million in album sales in little more than five years, and has a mantle crammed with nine Grammy awards. What's to be defiant about?
Well, failed love, apparently. That's not new. In fact, it's tired, old, cliched. But beneath that layer of conventional "You broke my heart, but you'll never break my spirit!" attitude of self-empowerment -- which is certainly something that many among Keys' fan-base will relate to and embrace -- is something that sure sounds an awful lot like a true musician's frustration. Yes, Keys sounds like she's dying to bust out of her gilded cage, to make a record as timeless as "Songs in the Key Of Life," to drop the faux-hip-hop production before its shelf-life expires, to dig for something deeper.
Keys achieves this during roughly half of "As I Am's" tunes. That puts her well above the contemporary R&B average and ensures that the record is at least quite good. Trouble is, Keys has a great album in her, and it's obvious. So we can't accept the consistently solid "As I Am" as anything other than a mild disappointment.
While in the past, Keys sought to marry the worlds of classic soul, pop and hip-hop, here, she segregates the idioms. Much of the record is produced by Kerry "Krucial" Brothers, which covers the hip-hop end. For pop, Keys brought songwriter Linda Perry (Pink, Gwen Stefani, Christina Aguilera) to the table. In between, Keys sneaks brief classical etudes, ("As I Am [Intro]") straight-up '70s soul-pop, ("Superwoman") and piano-led balladry (the sparse beauty of "Where Do We Go From Here"). It adds up to a record that hedges its bets at every turn, as if Keys felt immense pressure to grab herself a cross-genre hit. That pressure -- real or imagined -- is what fences "As I Am" in.
There are some genuine delights scattered throughout the album, however. "Prelude To A Kiss" is low-key soul, the most organic production on the record suggesting a live band at the tune's core.
Massive commercial success has its price. That price is artistic freedom. Alicia Keys knows why the caged bird sings. It's time for her to bust out, to make the record she is capable of making, commercial perceptions be damned. Until then, we have for compensation three good records that could've been great ones.
"As I Am"
Review: 2 1/2 stars (out of four)