Alicia Keys, As I Am
Pop's straight-A student produces another filler-free blockbuster
Whether she's drawing from Stevie Wonder, Bacharach or Bach, Alicia Keys sets herself apart from her R&B superwoman sisters by thinking, first and foremost, like a pianist. She's marketed as a singer, but her heart's in her keyboard. Keys' big-league status demands that she collaborates with as many tune doctors, co-producers, and stylists as the next diva, but her piano chops give this filler-free 2007 blockbuster a coherent musical and emotional narrative that most chart-conscious albums lack. This is a story about a woman eager to build upon her initial successes not simply because she's a cog in some corporate machine, but because popular song gives her restless ambitions a flattering channel.
A valedictorian at 16 of New York's prestigious Professional Performing Arts School, Keys is still very much a straight-A student (case in point: she eagerly reframes heartache as a "Lesson Learned"). She doesn't need an everyday romance, and she doesn't reference generic radio fodder. No, this overachiever demands to be desired; "Like You'll Never See Me Again" underlines her insistence by paraphrasing Prince's apocalyptic "Purple Rain." "It's time for me to shine," she declares in "This Thing About Love" over John Lennon-y piano chords and swooning George Martin-esque strings, as if she hadn't been polishing up her act since potty training. On As I Am, Keys has no interest in effortlessness: What you hear is what she sweats.