At the top of the pop world these days, it’s hard enough to find an artist who can sing well without the aid of ProTools. Never mind one that also arranges, plays an instrument (besides duct-taped tambourine), writes her own songs and produces her own albums. Alicia Keys does all these things and more—at 23-years-old no less—and for that, she has my utmost respect. That said, the follow-up to her listenable, though uneven multi-platinum debut, songs in A minor, is a step in the right direction. But a baby step.
On diary, Keys takes what she did on the first album and does it a little better. Better engineering, better production and—though there’s no obvious pop classic here, nothing with a hook that stands up to Key’s biggest hit “Fallin’”—the writing is better. Diary’s stronger tracks include “Heartburn,” a slightly over-polished yet ultra-funky modern take on ’70s soul (more Curtis Mayfield than Isaac Hayes); “If I Was Your Woman/Walk On By,” a well-written soul-pop tune with a killer sitar hook and Keys’ chiming harp-like piano accents that eventually morph into sparse, pretty jazz chords during the verse; “I Ain’t Got You,” a beautiful, wintery soul-jazz tune with great harmonies; and the soulful “Wake Up,” with its poignant string accents and powerful vocal performance. But there’s also brilliant moments gone awry like “You Don’t Know My Name,” a song that glides along in perfect soulful bliss until a painfully sappy spoken section rears its ugly head, crashing an otherwise well-done song into the ground. And yes, the repetition of the word ‘soul’ is important—because Keys is at her best is when she eschews the straight-up pop and hip-hop-inflected modern R&B approach in favor of more traditionally influenced soul numbers.
By now, the sound of Keys’ voice grinding smooth against her delicate piano and driving, programmed drums has become instantly identifiable. But perhaps she might do well to drop the electronics and do a stripped-down soul, funk or gospel album, recorded mostly live-in-the-studio with a great band. Go analog, leave the blemishes—maybe even bring in an old-school producer like Willie Mitchell (Al Green), or someone more modern like Cody Chesnutt (The Roots) who’s become a torch-bearer for that old sound, taking it somewhere new while keeping one foot planted firmly in the genre’s roots. Even The Neptunes, who produced Key’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me” single, might help her make a much-needed creative breakthrough.
Until then, diary will stand as a valiant effort by a talented artist who’s still failing to reach her full potential, which—I’d venture—is extremely high.