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Diary entries
The second coming of Alicia Keys

The Diary of Alicia Keys (J Records) does what every eagerly awaited second album is supposed to do: it proves that the debut album wasnít a fluke, that it did indeed mark the arrival of a major pop talent. Solidly tuneful, expertly performed, and at times even rhythmically daring, Diary is still rooted in this classically trained Harlem girlís love for both Beethovenís "Moonlight" Sonata and "quiet storm" R&B. Yet it also expands Keysís repertoire just enough. With deep gulleys of í70s-style soul and jagged outcroppings of hard pop, it improves on the simple blue-hued landscape of her 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor (J Records), avoiding the slow-jam sameness that dragged down Songsí final third and drags down so much contemporary R&B. And with two million copies sold in just over a month, and inclusion in some late-breaking 2003 Top 10 lists (like Jon Parelesís in the New York Times), The Diary of Alicia Keys now seems poised to challenge Songs in A Minorís stunning critical and commercial success.

All of which proves ó what? According to the power broker who turned the industry locks for Keys, Clive Davis, itís that you can still inspire "everyone who believes that uncompromising great music can still rule the charts." Perhaps. Or perhaps, as Village Voice critic Laura Sinagra put it, Diaryís success proves that "the record-buying public is shrinking to a layer of technophobic fogies" who need a star as dependably well mannered as Keys to "bring the tasteful to the malls in Norah numbers."

Norah, in case youíve forgotten, is Norah Jones, the jazz-tinged singer-songwriter whose remarkable success in 2002 mirrored Keysís success the year before. Songs in A Minor sold six million copies in the US and nabbed five Grammys, including the Best New Artist award; Jonesís Come Away with Me (Blue Note) sold eight million copies and also racked up five Grammys. Last March, the 23-year-old Jones was handed her Best New Artist trophy by the 22-year-old Keys. And if Songs in A Minor made the world safe for Come Away with Me, Come Away with Me may have made the world safe for The Diary of Alicia Keys.

Yet a song that couldnít be more different from Jonesís somnambulant musings most neatly demonstrates the parallel. The current Keys hit single, "You Donít Know My Name," seems at first an exercise in classic soul desperation, one worthy of great helpless sufferers like the Spinners, Smokey Robinson, and the Chi-Lites. "He donít even know what heís doiní to me," murmurs Keys, "Heís got me like . . . OW!" And then, just as sheís clinching it, she blows it, interjecting a long spoken-word break in which she calls up the man who doesnít even know her name and seduces him into a date. This isnít just a mild embarrassment, like the break on Stevie Wonderís "Liviní for the City" ó itís a repudiation of the songís entire emotional grounding. When the bit is over, all the perfectly timed retro stylings that follow sound hollow.

That indifference to meaning dogs The Diary of Alicia Keys just as it dogs the far more conservative Come Away with Me, and the indifference becomes clearer when you compare Diaryís romantic melodramas with those on its slightly less accomplished predecessor. Especially on its first half, Songs in A Minor brimmed with as much pointed lyrical emotion as polished musical skill: the jealousy that powered "Girlfriend" was as arresting as its Off the WallĖworthy melody; "Falliní " made every melismatic swoop feel like part of its seesaw romantic confession. Nothing on The Diary of Alicia Keys reaches those highs.

Sometimes this hardly matters. "Dragon Days" is a simmering jam that flips beats as confidently as Timbaland on your favorite Missy Elliott track. And Timbaland himself makes an appearance on "Heartburn" to play the part of Norman Whitfield leading the Temptations through an overdue follow-up to "Ball of Confusion." But after a while, even the retro fun starts nagging with that empty feeling, like the way Keys mimics Gladys Knightís original vocal on the otherwise expert cover "If I Was Your Woman/Walk On By." Seven cuts later, sheís crooning about "When You Love Someone," noting that "It donít make sense/But it make a good song." She also notes in a press release that a lot of the album was written on tour buses. What a surprise.

All of which proves . . . well, not much. The Diary of Alicia Keys confirms her talent, but it also confirms that Alicia Keys is indeed as young as her publicists boast. Time should solve that if Neverland doesnít await.

Issue Date: February 6 - 12, 2004
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