The Alicia Keys 'Element' Billboard Cover Story & Video
Alicia Keys Billboard Cover Story Yu Tsai

An unseasonal gust of wind greets Alicia Keys as she steps out of a doorway behind a Beverly Hills hotel on a late-October afternoon. Decked out in a black leather vest and black leggings brightly accented by turquoise suede knee-high boots and a hint of matching eyeliner, the Grammy Award-winning artist gets surprised by the chilly blast as she ducks into a waiting black sport utility vehicle. Commenting on the wind's force, the singer laughs when it's suggested the quick dust-up is a forecast of the whirlwind activity cranking up on behalf of her latest studio album, "The Element of Freedom."

Video Above: Alicia Keys, behind-the-scenes of the video shoot for "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart," talks about her new album. Video interview by Mariel Concepcion.


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On this particular afternoon, the singer/songwriter/producer/musician is being whisked off to CBS Studios to perform her second single, "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart," for an episode of "Dancing With the Stars" that will air Nov. 17. From there, she hopped on the freeway-in rush hour traffic-to neighboring Long Beach, Calif., where she spoke and closed California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference with a rendition of her hit "Superwoman."


Video Above: Alicia Keys talks about performing "Empire State Of Mind" with Jay-Z at during the 2009 World Series In New York. Video interview by Mariel Concepcion.

Super woman, indeed. That same night Keys boarded a plane back home to New York to prepare for her and Jay-Z's rocking Yankee Stadium performance of "Empire State of Mind" during Game 2 of the World Series. Just two weeks prior, Keys hosted her sixth annual Black Ball at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, where among the 1,000 guests were Chris Martin, John Mayer and David Bowie. The benefit was for the nonprofit AIDS organization the singer co-founded, Keep a Child Alive, which helps families in Africa and India-and it raised $2.4 million. In between all of this, the indefatigable artist launched a new company, AK Worldwide-prepping a new Web site and jewelry line as part of that endeavor-and began recording more music for her fifth album, "The Element of Freedom."

Originally slated for Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day), the MBK Entertainment/J Records project is now set for a simultaneous worldwide release Dec. 15. "She had a couple of more things in the oven and she wants this to be right," says Carolyn Williams, senior VP of urban marketing for J. "So we gave her the additional time she needed. We also get a second look into the market to build a stronger awareness campaign."

Using more viral marketing this time, J Records alerted fans to the project's lost-love lead single, "Doesn't Mean Anything," through announcements on "Live With Regis and Kelly," MTV, BET and various blogs including PerezHilton.com. "Doesn't" is No. 14 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. On its heels is the aforementioned "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart." Keys performed both songs during her "The Element of Freedom: The Lecture & Performance Series" Oct. 21 at New York University's Skirball Center.

Keys' live NYU performance is airing on "Yahoo Pepsi Smash" this week. After a Nov. 5 appearance at the Latin Grammy Awards, upcoming performances by the singer include the American Music Awards (Nov. 22), the "Today" show's outdoor concert series (Nov. 24), the U.K. program "The X Factor" (Nov. 29), the "Christmas at Rockefeller Center" special (airing Dec. 2), a headlining stint at the 2009 Cayman Jazz Festival (Dec. 3-5), "Late Show With David Letterman" (Dec. 14) and "The View" (Dec. 16).

Additional marketing anchors include Keys' free concert on World AIDS Day. Tying in with all of New York radio, the event will also treat Facebook contest winners to a lineup of surprise guests.

BET turns over its "106 & Park" show to a two-hour special, "106 & Keys," Dec. 16. Dedicated to all things Alicia, the broadcast will feature a countdown of her videos, a Q&A and a live performance.

At retail, an exclusive deluxe version of the album will be available at iTunes and Target that includes a DVD featuring exclusive live studio footage and two more bonus tracks. A direct-to-consumer Fan Pak Deluxe (in the $25-$30 range) is also available; it features a standard album in special packaging, two other bonus tracks, audio from last year's Clear Channel "Stripped" program and such add-ons as an autographed T-shirt and-for anyone who pre-orders the Fan Pak-a chance to win one of 88 autographed keys from a Yamaha piano.

When Billboard caught up with Keys again earlier this week, the tireless super woman was finally "taking a small respite" for few days before the promotional juggernaut kicks into gear. "Music is my first love," she says. "But what drives me is the excitement and challenge of trying new things, stretching myself creatively on as many different levels as possible."

Why did you decide to go back into the studio to record more songs?

It was just a natural progression. While we were mixing the last couple of songs, it felt like we would have been rushing for no reason to put the finishing touches on songs that deserved one more week or so to do properly. So we gently moved the album back.

You've now released two singles, "Doesn't Mean Anything" and "Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart." What other sonic hints can you share about the new album?

This album is really just about growth and freedom. Sonically, the sound is grand and massive. It feels emotional and vulnerable but there's also a kind of freedom in it. I can't quite find a better word than freedom to really describe it. Even though every song has touches of different textures and sounds, the overall [sense of] freedom is the thing that grounds it. It's definitely the theme of where I am in my life.

Another song example is the track "Love Is Blind." Some people say the piano on it sounds like something from Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley. We've been using a lot of different keyboard sounds on this album. This particular song uses the CP 70 keyboard. It looks just like a piano but has a different tone; more of an electric sound. The song has a darker tone to it and the beats get real heavy. But then the vocals are very soulful and bluesy.

Questions? Comments? Let us know: @billboard

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