Alicia Keys performs onstage during BET Networks 2016 Upfront at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 20, 2016 in New York City. 
Alicia Keys performs onstage during BET Networks 2016 Upfront at Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 20, 2016 in New York City. 
 D Dipasupil/BET/Getty Images for BET Networks

The Evolution of Alicia Keys

by Billboard Staff
October 12, 2016, 4:25pm EDT

From the moment Alicia Keys opened her mouth and nailed the introductory run on her debut single “Fallin’,” it was clear that she had superstar potential. Over the past decade and a half, the 35-year-old has gone from R&B sensation to international pop icon, earning 15 Grammy Awards, moving more than 35 million albums and showing that extraordinary talent as both a musician and vocalist sells itself.

Keys, born Alicia Cook, began studying classical piano at seven years old and would later graduate as valedictorian from the Professional Performing Arts School. Becoming a musician was coded in her DNA—she juggled attending Columbia University while signed to Columbia Records, but dropped out and left the label in the late ‘90s to join up with industry magnate Clive Davis, who brought her to his J Records roster, which also played home to Fantasia, Mario and Jazmine Sullivan.

Her full-length debut, Songs in A Minor, introduced a different kind of pop singer. Not only was she mean on the ivories, but she showed true musicianship, writing and performing her material. It was a far cry from the slick boyband pop dominating the charts at the time. Upon the project’s release in June 2001, Keys quickly established herself as one of music’s most promising talents, sending “Fallin’” to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for six weeks and roping in five Grammys at the ceremony the following year.

Whereas Songs in A Minor flirted with pop convention, her follow up The Diary of Alicia Keys leaned much more on classic soul, most notably on the Kanye West-produced lead single “You Don’t Know My Name.” Three of the album’s singles hit the top 10 on the Hot 100 (her collaborative single with Usher, “My Boo,” stayed at No. 1 for six weeks), and four more Grammys came her way the next year, making her one of the music game’s most surefire figures.

In the years that followed, Keys continued to develop her artistry, releasing a handful of albums that touched on experimental pop (2007’s As I Am), more downbeat R&B jams (2009’s The Element of Freedom) and a sleek mix of the two (2012’s Girl on Fire). 2007 also saw her theatrical debut with a role in Smokin’ Aces, also starring Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds. Her presence in Hollywood has been steady ever since, with roles in films including The Secret Life of Bees and The Nanny Diaries as well as on TV shows like Empire.

With her husband, super producer Swizz Beatz, Keys has also spent the past few years focusing on raising their two children and doing philanthropic work. She cofounded the non-profit Keep a Child Alive and has participated in numerous fundraisers, including Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast and America: A Tribute to Heroes. However, she continues to circle back to the music: she’s released three singles since 2014 including “We Are Here,” “28 Thousand Days” and “In Common,” the latter of which is poised to be the lead-off track for her untitled sixth solo album. It may be another milestone in her already celebrated career, but Keys once again shows how unstoppable she truly is.

The Evolution of an Artist series is presented by Apple.