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POP BEAT

Keys avoids the sophomore jinx

Her debut album in 2001 was a smash hit, success that created huge expectations. Her next disc, due in stores Dec. 2, doesn't disappoint.

November 22, 2003|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Don't feel alone if you've been wondering whatever happened to Alicia Keys.

It's been nearly two years since the stylish R&B/pop singer-songwriter was at Staples Center collecting five Grammys, a single-year total matched among female artists only by Lauryn Hill in 1999 and Norah Jones this year.

Unlike other young artists who seem obsessively driven to flame the publicity fires by constantly posing for magazine pinup covers or demonstrating their daring by kissing Madonna on MTV, Keys has been concentrating on making music that would live up to the enormous expectations generated by her debut album, "Songs in A Minor."

She finally returns with that long-awaited album, "The Diary of Alicia Keys," on Dec. 2, and she previewed some of the material in an industry showcase this week at the Highlands nightclub in Hollywood that drew some A-list musicians, including Stevie Wonder, and some current hitmakers, including "American Idol" faves Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.

The result was wonderfully reassuring for anyone who sensed in that first album that Keys is one of those rare pop figures these days who seems more concerned with artistic integrity than commercial standing.

In an age of dumbing-down in pop, Keys is an artist who, much in the manner of Norah Jones, seems devoted to living up to the best pop standards. Measured against other twentysomethings on the pop charts, including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Keys and Jones are women among girls, creatively speaking.

Despite sharp differences in approach, Keys and Jones share a respect for tradition and personalized statement rather than merely trying to duplicate whatever happens to be popular on the radio at the moment. That's why the commercial success of their first albums has been so remarkable. "Songs" has sold nearly 6 million copies in the U.S. alone, while Jones' "Come Away With Me" has sold more than 7 million here.

The odds against Keys -- or Jones -- matching that figure again are extremely high, and the first good thing about Keys' music and manner at the Highlands on Wednesday was that there were no signs she has compromised her artistry in attempting to match those figures. The music, however, continues to have such a classy, evocative edge that she may just do it.

The New Yorker opened her brief, one-hour set with a medley of tunes from the first album, including "Fallin'," which won a Grammy for song of the year in 2002. Then she went into "Diary," a delicate expression of loyalty and comfort from the new album, that reflected some of the classic '60s and '70s soul/R&B strains of the first album.

She and her band followed with "If I Ain't Got You," another tender ballad that has the strong melodic lines and personalized lyrics associated with Gladys Knight during her Motown days. It's an evocative expression of the importance of loving relationships.

Even more striking than the song, however, is Keys' singing. Keys, who accompanied herself on piano, has a voice powerful enough to leap octaves at will, but never at the expense of the soulful edges of the song.

The evening's high point was a third new song, "You Don't Know My Name." It's a lavishly designed, mid-tempo tale of romantic infatuation whose sweet, soulful strains were underscored at the Highlands when she was joined by the Moments, one of the most graceful of the '60s R&B vocal groups.

In many ways, the low-key nature of Wednesday's showcase was reminiscent of the night three years ago when record company titan Clive Davis introduced her at an industry showcase at the Roxy.

At that time, Keys was totally unknown, and the main reason most people showed up that night was because they wanted to see the woman that Davis, the head of J Records, was describing as "superlative." After all, he's the executive whose many discoveries, during earlier reigns at the Columbia and Arista labels, included Janis Joplin, Patti Smith and Whitney Houston.

Keys, of course, didn't need Davis' presence to draw a crowd Wednesday -- which is good, because he was in New York to be with his daughter, who was giving birth.

But Davis, who also helped orchestrate Carlos Santana's recent resurgence, is very pleased with the new album.

"I think she has totally risen to the occasion," he said by phone from New York on Friday. "She doesn't try to fit in, nor should she try to fit in. She really has kept her artistic visions intact and continues to grow. I'm thrilled with the album and the reaction on radio to 'You Don't Know Me,' which is the first single. She is totally unique."

About her creative independence, Keys said the day after the Highlands showcase, "I'm a rebel at heart. I never want to be part of that thing that everybody else is always doing.

"I always want to make music that is different, that's fresh -- something that, when you say my name 50 years from now, people won't cringe," she said. "Hopefully, they will know that everything felt full of integrity."

At a time in pop when most mainstream artists think of nothing more than simply making a dent on the charts next time out, that's a lofty goal. At 22, Keys has a long way to go to achieve it, but she's off to a captivating start.

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