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Accomplished at 22, finding her own path

November 30, 2003|Robert Hilburn

Alicia Keys

"The Diary of Alicia Keys" (J)

*** 1/2

When Keys' debut album arrived in 2001, it was clear that this New Yorker was an immense talent; a singer-songwriter with an artistry and taste far beyond the reach of all her young female pop and R&B rivals. The main question was how she would employ those gifts.

That first album, "Songs in A Minor," seemed like a musical sampler as Keys moved with ease from the youthful Top 40 zest of "Girlfriend" to the edgier, more sensual currents of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" to the neo-soul elegance of "Fallin'."

The question became magnified when the album sold 10 million copies worldwide and led to Keys' winning five Grammys: Would she continue to dabble in various styles or, hopefully, narrow her focus to define her musical vision?

She does pick a path here, and it's a welcome one.

In the 15 songs on "Diary," Keys employs arrangements (sometimes lavish, sometimes intimate) that update the musical sensibilities of the '60s and '70s soul tradition. She even salutes that glorious pop period by including a version of the Gladys Knight hit "If I Were Your Woman" in the album.

As the title suggests, the themes deal with romantic complexities, from moments of confusion to infatuation to devotion. At one point, Keys, who co-writes most of the songs, declares about relationships, "Now it's hardly simple, it's simply hard."

Generally, Keys, still just 22, is more accomplished as a singer than writer at this point, but she makes each moment on the album seem real and her own, a liberating break from the calculated, anonymous tone of most commercial R&B and pop these days.

*

-- Robert Hilburn

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