It wasn’t until earlier this year that I began to call myself a fan of Alicia Keys, but the R&B songstress has been on the music scene since early 2001. Keys released her debut album, Songs In A Minor in June of that year and saw unprecedented success thanks to her songwriting, singing, and overall musicianship and hit single, Fallin’.
Though I’ve had this album since then (I remember buying it at some point in 01), I haven’t listened to it much in the recent years. I’m not sure why- I loved the disc when I first bought it and even for a few years after that, but until I recently discovered my love for Keys’ talent, the CD stayed at the back of my shelf. Now, I’m rediscovering just how good this album is.
The disc starts off with Piano & I, a two-minute intro to the album. The short song finds Keys singing and playing the classical piece, Moonlight Sonata, before adding in a drum machine and giving the song a more of an R&B feel. Despite the song just being an interlude, it features inspiring lyrics (“Whatever stops you from dreamin’/Whatever tries to stop you from livin’/Flip it”) and gives us a small glimpse of Keys’ vocal talent.
The intro transitions smoothly to the first real song on the album, Girlfriend. Produced by hip-hop hit maker, Jermaine Dupri, the song features an upbeat sound and an infectious chorus. I even like the lyrics- which are about being jealous of a boyfriend’s best female friend- and Keys’ sounds convincing as she sings lines like, “And I know she’s a friend, but I can’t shake the feeling that I could be losing your heart”. A Prince cover follows with How Come You Don’t Call Me?. Though I’ve never heard the original (I know, I know…what kind of Prince fan am I?!), I love Keys’ rendition. The soulful number allows Keys’ plenty of opportunities to show off her vocals, and she does just that during the verses and choruses.
Keys’ signature song, however, is her aforementioned first single, Fallin’. I can’t think of many people who haven’t heard this song, as it was nearly everywhere the year it was released. The ballad finds Keys’ singing about a relationship that leaves her with mixed feelings (“Sometimes I love ya/Sometimes you make me blue/Sometimes I feel good/At times I feel used/Lovin’ you darlin’/Makes me so confused”) and her vocals are again, highlighted beautifully. The song went on to win three Grammys in 2001 (including “Song of the Year”), and as Keys’ solely wrote and produced the song, all the credit goes to her.
Another of the album’s big singles was A Woman’s Worth. The lyrics this time around are about appreciation in a relationship (“Cause a real man, knows a real woman when he sees her/And a real woman knows a real man ain’t afraid to please her/And a real woman knows a real man always comes first/And a real man just can’t deny a woman’s worth”), but it’s the explosive chorus that really makes the song. Keys sings her heart out and the result is a memorable track and one of the highlights of the album. Jane Doe is a fast-paced number co-written and produced by Kandi (a popular urban producer of the time). The lyrics are written to all the “Jane Doe’s” in the world, who are basically any women trying to cause problems for Keys and her man (“Let’s talk about the situation/’Bout how you came with information/That’s negative in every which way/Just dissin’ my man and our relations/You say he’s cheatin’, want me to leave him/I’ve changed my mind I think I’ll keep him/Listenin’ to you will leave me lonely/That’s not what I’m tryin to be”). Though the lyrics are kind of weak, I’ve always liked this song because of the chorus and catchy beat.
Unfortunately, the album does have a few dull spots. Troubles sounds like an Erykah Badu track, and Keys’ vocals during the verses even sound reminiscent of her. The song is another inspirational one (“If you’re troubled, you just gotta let it go/If you’re worried baby, you just gotta let it go/All your hustles ain’t for nothing, you just gotta take it slow/When you need me baby, all you do is let it go”), but doesn’t tend to keep my interest. Rock Wit U has a 70’s soul vibe to it, and that’s the most notable thing about the song. The Life also has an old school feel, but similar to the songs before it, lacks anything that would make it stand out amongst the better tracks on the album. R&B singer, Jimmy Cozier duets with Keys’ on the Latin-flavored track, Mr. Man, which is a better offering overall, but the lyrics annoy me (“I wanna know if you feel the way I do/I wanna know if there’s a chance for me and you/If there’s no way, meet at the bar and you say can’t/’Cause I don’t wanna be/Unfair to Mr. Man”) and I usually end up skipping over this track.
Keys thankfully makes up for those songs with a few great ballads. The first up is Goodbye, a song written and produced completely by Keys alone. The piano-based melody leads way to a sad song about the end of a relationship (“But how do I let go when I’ve/Loved him for so long and I’ve/Given him all that I could/Maybe love is a hopeless crime/Giving up what seems your lifetime/What went wrong with something once so good”). Brian McKnight penned the interlude Never Felt This Way, and I believe this is the first time I’ve ever heard an artist sing a song written or produced by McKnight and actually make it their own. Meaning, most of the time a McKnight composition is featured on another artist’s album, you can usually tell– the song just sounds like a typical “Brian McKnight” song. Keys, however, is able to make the song sound like an “Alicia Keys” song, and the result is a lovely, albeit short, ballad. The song leads way to Butterflyz, another ballad which keeps some of the themes from Never Felt This Way. The sweet lyrics (“Lately when I look into your eyes/Baby I fly- you’re the only one I need in my life/Baby I just don’t know how to describe/How lovely you make me feel inside/You give me butterflyz/Have me flyin’ so high in the sky”) call to mind something by Mariah Carey (no, not her song of the same name, but perhaps a mix of several of Carey’s songs), and Keys again sounds great. I usually find myself focusing more on the piano than on her vocals or lyrics though, during this song, as the piano is the main instrument and it sounds quite lovely as Keys’ tickles the ivories. Why Do I Feel So Sad? is actually a mid-tempo ballad, which laments the end of a friendship (“How can I adjust/To the way that things are going/It’s killing me slowly/Oh I just want it to be how it used to be/’Cause I wish that I could stay/But in time things must change/So it shouldn’t be so bad/So why do I feel so sad”). The lyrics are relatable and the song is another of the disc’s highlights.
The album closes with my favorite song on the disc, Caged Bird. The track begins quietly, with the sounds of a music box playing and a scratchy record effect being laid over the music. Keys’ vocals begin softly and understated as she sings about her life as a “caged bird” (“Everyone comes to stare at me/With so much joy and reverie/They don’t know how I feel inside/Through my smile I cry/They don’t know what they’re doin’ to me/Keeping me from flyin’”). By the chorus, Keys’ vocals build and so does the music, giving the song an appropriately triumphant feeling. The lyrics are uplifting and inspirational without being cheesy (“I know why the caged bird sings/Only joy comes from song/She’s so rare and beautiful to others/Why not just set her free/So she can/Fly, fly, fly/Spreadin’ her wings and her song”), and the song is the perfect anthem for anyone who’s trying to find themselves in life (which has been all of us at one point or the other). I also love Keys’ strong vocals during the song, and the song has a great personal meaning to me as well. A few minutes after we are lead to believe the song is over, we are instead introduced to a hidden track titled, Lovin’ U. The upbeat and breezy number is well-placed after Caged Bird, and Keys’ calls to mind Aretha Franklin with her vocals and the song’s doo-wop/Motown feel. The song is a fun end to the album, and makes me smile every time I hear it.
Songs In A Minor is a solid debut album. Alicia Keys is truly one of the most talented artists of our time, and this is apparent through her songs, vocals, songwriting, and piano playing. Though a few songs fail to impress me, it’s still easy to say that Keys is an immensely talented musician.
1. Piano & I
3. How Come You Don’t Call Me
6. Rock Wit U
7. A Woman’s Worth
8. Jane Doe
10. Life, The
11. Mr. Man – (with Jimmy Cozier)
12. Never Felt This Way
14. Why Do I Feel So Sad
15. Caged Bird
16. Loving U (hidden track)