Album Review: Alicia Keys, “As I Am” (2007)

I’m not going to lie to you and pretend that I’ve always been a fan of Alicia Keys’ music. I’ll admit to being charmed by her debut in 2001, and even buying and enjoying her first CD, Songs in A Minor. But when a storm of hype followed with her second disc (The Diary of Alicia Keys), I found my interest in her waning. Sure, Alicia Keys was talented. Sure, she could sing very well. But what really separated her from the other pop and R&B divas? To me, she was just another good singer that was terribly overrated.

It wasn’t until last fall when I heard Keys’ single, No One, that I actually stopped and gave her another chance. On a whim last month, I purchased Keys’ latest effort, As I Am, and I’ve been listening to almost non-stop since then.

The disc shows a lot of growth from Keys- all of the songs are wonderfully sung, written and produced. I’m finally starting to see why there’s so much hype and glory given to Alicia Keys and her talent: It’s because she deserves it.

As I Am starts off the album as an intro. The short introduction (only 1:52), begins as a quiet piano piece before adding in a drum machine and heavier piano- giving the small number a hip hop feel that gives the album an exciting start.

The first real song on the CD is presented with Go Ahead. Strangely enough, I feel that this song is probably the weakest, and therefore my least favorite, on the disc. The melody isn’t anything entirely remarkable- a typical R&B beat with drums and synthesizers- and the lyrics are pretty typical as well, as Keys sings to an ex-lover and tells them to “Go head go on and get up out of here”. The uninspired song is the most similar to some of Keys’ older stuff, and is a pretty lackluster comparison to the much better songs on the album.

Speaking of which, my favorite song appears early with Superwoman. I still can’t listen to the opening melody of this song without thinking of the clever MTV commercials promoting the album with Keys being harassed by John Mayer in a bunny suit (and I realize if you haven’t seen the commercials, that was probably one of the weirdest sentences you’ve ever read. Go YouTube them…they’re worth more than a few laughs). Anyway, Keys begins singing the song with a great amount of conviction, and her voice is immediately highlighted. Besides her stellar vocals, the song also boasts beautiful and empowering lyrics (“Cause I am a Superwoman/Yes I am/Even when I’m a mess/I still put on a vest/With an S on my chest/Oh yes/I’m a Superwoman”) and an amazing beat to boot. The chorus is one you’ll have trouble forgetting, and overall, the song is one of the best on the album.

The lead single, No One, follows and is also one of the strong points on the disc. Its easy to see why this song has been such a hit; the opening bars, Keys’ strong vocals during the verses, and the anthemetic bridge and chorus (“You and me together/Through the days and nights/I don’t worry ’cause/Everything’s going to be alright/People keep talking they can say what they like/But all I know is everything’s going to be alright/No one, no one, no one/Can get in the way of what I’m feeling”) all make this a perfect radio hit. The music has an old school flavor to it, which also works well, and the song (though a bit overplayed now) is another of my favorites.

The genius continues with Like You’ll Never See Me Again, a slower groove track. The romantic melody seems oddly paired with the lyrics, which are (though sentimental) less about making love, and more about not taking time for granted, especially when it comes to the one you love (“I don’t wanna forget the present is a gift/And I don’t wanna take for granted the time you may have here with me/’Cause Lord only knows another day is not really guaranteed/So every time you hold me/Hold me like this is the last time/Every time you kiss me/Kiss me like you’ll never see me again/Every time you touch me/Touch me like this is the last time/Promise that you’ll love me/Love me like you’ll never see me again”). Keys vocals are soft and understated this time around, but the effect is a nice touch. The fact that Keys co-wrote the song with her long-time rumored boyfriend, Kerry Brothers Jr., makes it even sweeter. Aww :).

Now, I’ll admit that part of my recognition of Keys as a justifiably amazing artist had a bit to do with her connections with my favorite artist, John Mayer. Keys and Mayer have been musically linked together on several occasions, from Keys singing with him during live performances, to, most recently, Mayer’s surprise guitar solo on Keys’ Grammy performance this year. However, Lesson Learned marks the two performers’ first studio recording. The mid-tempo song was an immediate favorite of mine; Keys and Mayer sound great together during the choruses and the catchy melody is another that’s hard to forget. The song, which was co-written by Keys and Mayer, tells the story of a lover returning to a former flame, and the picture is painted so flawlessly (“Thirty seconds to apologize/You give it one more chance/Just like the time before/But he already know you’d give a hundred more/Until that night in bed/You wake up in a sweat/You’re racing to the door/Can’t take it anymore”), and I’m definitely hoping to see more collaborations between Mayer and Keys in the future (::cough::John’snewCD::cough::). Though I would’ve maybe liked to see a guitar solo from Mayer, or even more of his vocals, I still can’t really complain- the song is wonderful.

Wreckless Love plays as a throwback to the late 60’s and is yet another hit on the album. This time around Keys sings about restoring the fire in a relationship (hmm…more hints to a long term relationship with Kerry Brothers?), and the old school melody plays off the lyrics perfectly (“Let’s go back in time/When our kiss was brand new /An adventure not perfected/A little hesitant…/Have that wreckless love/That crazy love/That I don’t really care /We can have it anywhere/Kind of love/That wreckless love”). Keys sings the choruses with power and conviction, and the result is a perfect, summery sort of song that I love singing along to.

Alicia Keys 2011

The Thing About Love begins as a slow ballad, and at first comes off as a bit of a bore. Though Keys’ vocals are quite lovely, the dreary piano and trite lyrics (“Oh love/It will forsake you/Threaten to break you/Take what you got”) don’t leave much of an impact. Then, about halfway through the song, the tempo picks up, and the melody transitions to a sort of doo-wop sound, which works extremely well. Keys sounds brilliant in the second half of the song, and suddenly the first few minutes make more sense, once paired up with the more lively part of the song. The track ends quietly with the repetition of the opening lyrics, and though the song is a kind of musical rollercoaster, it’s at least a fun one.

Teenage Love Affair is an upbeat, cute number. Keys reminisces about young love, and the lyrics always make me smile (“Daydreaming about you all day/In school can’t concentrate/Want to have your voice in my ear/’Til ma comes and says it’s too late…/So maybe we can go to first base/Because I feel you/Second base/Want you to feel me too/Third base/Better pump the breaks/Well baby slow down/I gotta go home now”). The bouncy beat is another that would fit in perfectly on a soundtrack for summer. Likewise, I Need You, is another up-tempo R&B track that calls to mind Lauren Hill. The lyrics are simple, yet still well-written and catchy (“The sand loves when the waves come/The sky can’t wait for the light of the sun/So how could you look me in my eye/And not see what I feel inside/Tell me how could you doubt the fact that I/I love you…/ Like the desert needs the rain/Like joy needs pain”), and again, Keys’ strong and beautiful vocals are great to listen to; the song is another of my favorites. Where Do We Go From Here samples Memphis soul singer, Wendy Rene’s song, After Laughter Comes Rain in the beginning. Keys’ Motown-influenced song is another great track; the heavy beats and big vocals create a perfect sound.

The tempo slows down a bit with Prelude To A Kiss, a short ballad written solely by Keys. The honest and revealing lyrics (“Sometimes I feel like I don’t belong anywhere/And it’s gonna take so long for me to get to somewhere/Sometimes I feel so heavy hearted but I can’t explain ‘cause I’m so guarded/But that’s a lonely road to travel, and a heavy load to bear.”) are easily relatable, and the quite piano paired with Keys’ alluring vocals make a beautiful combination.

The song segues seamlessly into Tell You Something (Nana’s Reprise). The track, dedicated to Keys’ late grandmother, continues on with the themes of Like You’ll Never See Me Again, as the lyrics again focus on not taking life and relationships for granted (“’Cause it would all mean nothing if I don’t say something before it all goes away/Don’t wanna wait to bring you flowers, waste another hour let alone another day…/Imagine there was no tomorrow/Imagine that I couldn’t see your face/There would be no limit to my sorrow/’Cause there’s nothing that could fill that space/I don’t wanna put it off for too long/I didn’t say all that I had to say/I wanna take my time and right the wrong before we get to that place”). This topic obviously hit home with Keys during the making of the album, and she covers it so heartfelt and gracefully, making the song another gem on the disc (and even brought me to tears during the first time I listened to it).

The disc comes to a close with Sure Looks Good To Me, an upbeat number which is co-written and produced by Linda Perry. The song calls to mind a handful of the numbers Perry wrote and produced on Christina Aguilera’s, Stripped, album. The song is a bit of a hit or miss; despite the inspiring lyrics (“So don’t rain on my parade/Life’s too short to waste one day/I’m gonna risk it all, the freedom to fall/Yes, it sure looks good to me”), the track doesn’t stand out much, even after repeated listens, and definitely gets lost in the sea of far better tracks on the album.

All in all, As I Am is a terrific album. The songs, which are all expertly produced, are all extremely well-written and sung. Alicia Keys is a verifiable star, and she has the talent (as both a singer and songwriter) to back up all the accolades, awards, and press she has gotten thus far. And by the looks of things, there’s only more of her talent to come.

Rating: 200px-4_stars.svg

Track Listing
1. As I Am (Intro)
2. Go Ahead
3. Superwoman
4. No One
5. Like You’ll Never See Me Again
6. Lesson Learned – (with John Mayer)
7. Wreckless Love
8. Thing About Love, The
9. Teenage Love Affair
10. I Need You
11. Where Do We Go From Here
12. Prelude To a Kiss
13. Tell You Something – (Reprise)
14. Sure Looks Good To Me

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rywUS-ohqeE]
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