by Alicia Keys
One of my favorite acts of criticism of the decade came in the form of a phone call from my sister Brittany in 2001, after she'd come back from attending the Minnesota State Fair. "Michael," she said, mock breathless, "I just saw the talented Alicia Keys." According to Brittany's report, Keys, then touring behind Songs in A Minor, emanated disingenuousness the way you or I expel sweat in a heat wave. She began "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore," which she'd covered on the album, by intimating through hammy ululation
that Prince himself might join her for the song (he didn't)—she was, after all, in the Twin Cities, where nodding to him is as standard (and tiresome) as onstage references to Kurt Cobain are in Seattle. She whipped out her piano chops to adoring sighs. Coy monologues abounded. For someone who hadn't yet reached drinking age, it sounded as if she'd managed more showbiz clichés than a roomful of Rent road-show hopefuls being called upon to improvise. And that was just her first album.
I think of that phone call whenever I hear a new Keys song—it's difficult not to—but I never think of Keys as insincere. That kind of blandness is impossible to fake, and it's everywhere on "Doesn't Mean Anything," which sounds like a tracing-paper "No One": tempo a mite quicker (that dead four-to-the-floor thump everyone in pop and R&B is using even on ballads now), fewer vocal overdubs till halfway into the chorus, less belting, lyric about being bereft, the usual. "Material things/They don't mean a thing": Now we know. It meanders where "No One" clobbered, which is a mistake: Something so eminently yeah-so-what works best when you pile it on.
But there are other ways to do it. The other week, I received an e-mail announcing Keys's newest triumph: a "lecture and performance series" encompassing NYU and UCLA, with more to come. That's right: This 28-year-old with zero to say artistically is hitting the lecture circuit. Here's a quote from the press release: "For the first time in my recording career, I think I've finally found an understanding of the creative process by just allowing myself to be free." The series is, of course, named after her forthcoming album, The Element of Freedom—synergy! The NYU appearance, of course, was not open to the public. Sorry, Brittany. I'll try harder to return the favor next time.