Given an industry beset by downloading and diminished sales, tight radio playlists and one-hit ringtone wonders, a career artist is becoming a rare commodity. But ever since Alicia Keys hit the ground running in 2001 with her first No. 1 J Records debut, “Songs in A Minor,” industry observers predicted the talented ingénue had staying power.
The 27-year-old has definitely made a good head start. Within the last six years, Keys has scored two more No. 1 album debuts, 2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys” and 2005’s “Unplugged.” And expectations are high that “As I Am,” her third studio album (Nov. 13) will echo the success of its predecessors. Already, the first single, “No One,” has reached the top of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs chart and has cracked the top five of The Billboard Hot 100.
And yet Keys, known for all-nighters in the studio or hopping from a film set by day to recording music at night, knows she needs to keep the promotion cycle under control. These days, Keys’ biggest challenge may be the volume of work it takes to reach her fans in international markets and on every platform.
“We haven’t even crossed over to top 40 yet but even now, a month before the album, she’s been to Hong Kong, Paris, and London,” J Records executive VP Tom Corson says.
Indeed, Keys was run down a bit prior to the recording of “As I Am.” “It was a tough time over the past 12 months,” the singer says. “From the start, I’d been going nonstop [between touring, performing, awards shows, etc.] and it got to the point where I felt I was losing touch with my own feelings . . . I wouldn’t say no to anything. It wore me down, and I got depressed. I was smiling and going through the motions but inside I was becoming too guarded and closed.”
Sitting at her keyboard in a Burbank, Calif., bungalow on this afternoon in mid-September, the picture of calm, such troubles seem far away, however.
“I’m feeling really excited because I can’t believe this music,” Keys says of “As I Am.” “I’m excited for other people to be connected to it.”
A STEP BACK
It took a tragedy to help Keys refocus her energies for this album. A close family member became ill, she says, and it put her career in perspective. “It helped me get back in touch with my real emotions,” Keys says. “I decided to take some time away from this . . . to spend time and visit with my relative, and from that I began to understand what had been troubling me, understanding life and God’s will . . . That and other experiences over the past year left me with music bursting out from me. That’s when I knew it was time to record.”
As the title implies, “As I Am” offers more insight into Keys the artist. Deeper and more diverse in terms of its influences, the album, which reunited her with J Records A&R president Peter Edge, was born out of a period of self-reflection.
Keys recently collaborated with Floetry’s Ambrosius on “Go Ahead,” a female empowerment anthem about remaining true to yourself despite what others do or think. “It’ll have you standing up and throwing a fist into the air,” Ambrosius says.
Keys becomes animated and a throaty laugh erupts when asked about “No One,” currently No. 4 on the Hot 100.
“This is one song that just wrote itself,” says Keys, who breaks into singing a snippet of the song. “A lot of the songs didn’t happen like that. It was one of the last songs I wrote. I needed to say this. It’s full force, classical yet vintage, desperate yet triumphant. I want people to feel my soul.”
The central idea of the song—that no one will shake Keys’ confidence in her feelings—is eminently relatable to music fans of every stripe. And that relatability has been key to the timeless appeal of her music.
Still, Keys says, she stays true to her music and isn’t too conscious of what her fans may think. “Whether people get me or not, I will still feel great,” she says. “I have to do what I feel. But,” and the throaty laughs erupts again, “you do feel extra great when people can get you.”
Keys’ style has transitioned over the years, from cornrows, scarves and blue jeans to a more sophisticated look: flowing, unfettered tresses and designer dresses. It’s this more mature Keys that will be adorning newsstands via covers of Las Vegas magazine, Ebony, Jet, Trace and others.
Those covers are part of a broad marketing strategy that is a team effort among Keys, manager Robinson, J Records VP of urban marketing Carolyn Williams and J Records’ Corson.
Keys will benefit from the usual campaign components – promotional travel, online presence, including Clear Channel’s “Stripped” and AOL album listening parties, as well as a series of webisodes being posted regularly on Keys’ Web site. But this time around, for example, the Keys camp worked an unprecedented (for them) relationship with Conde Nast. In exchange for performances on CBS, artists received advertising packages in Conde Nast publications. Keys also has a relationship with Target that includes a customized TV spot and a premium edition of “As I Am,” packaged with a special DVD.
Keys and Robinson are also developing other film projects under their production banner, Big Pita, Lil’ Pita. Their projects include “Zora,” a dramedy about a biracial 15-year-old whose coming-of-age issues were inspired by Keys’ childhood. (The network is to be determined.) Also in the works is a show for MTV, a film with director F. Gary Gray (“Set It Off”) and a remake of the 1958 comedy “Bell, Book & Candle.” This last project is part of a BPLP’s multi-year production deal with Disney.
“Acting is a cool way to bring in multiple worlds the way others have,” Keys notes. “Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones: That’s my mix.”
One of her biggest ambitions currently on the cinematic front is to make music for films.
“I am dying to do some scoring,” Keys says. “When the right thing comes along, I’ll do that for film and theater. I don’t like to do what everybody else does [clothing, perfume, etc.]. It has to be something I can do with a twist, something special. If it’s something average, I don’t want to do it.”
It’s this approach that keeps Keys in a league of her own. And it’s an approach Keys says will stay rooted in her singing.
“Years from now I’ll still be doing something with music,” she says. “I still believe that’s my destiny. I see it as something that will be in my life forever. I hope to be remembered as someone who respects and loves music, who brought something fresh and inspiring. I want to be remembered as a person of the people who had a voice and used it like a Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield.”