Two years ago, Alicia Keys was welcomed as a salve for all that ailed pop music. Barely out of her teens, Keys was hailed as the real deal: a true singer, songwriter and musician who displayed the soul and integrity of Laura Nyro and Roberta Flack. With little artifice and a mountain of talent, she was catapulted to stardom on the strength of her gorgeous ballad "Fallin'," which sparked multimillion sales for her debut Songs in A Minor and won her an armful of Grammys in 2002.
Along with the acclaim came an inevitable backlash. Some complained that Keys's video-perfect, runway model looks boosted her success. (Like being born beautiful is her fault.) Still others maintained that save for a few tracks, most of Songs in A Minor grew a bit stale after repeated listenings. Even taking into account that Keys wrote many of the songs when she was in her mid-teens, there was certainly some truth to this. Her debut songs had a tendency to sound the same, even if it was a generally pleasant sameness.
So there may be even more pressure on Keys as her sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys, arrives in stores. Again, Keys wrote or co-wrote nearly every song (except for the combined covers of "If I Was Your Woman/Walk on By"), and she doesn't tinker with the formula that helped her debut sell 10 million discs worldwide. Though there's no showstopper like "Fallin'," it's a solid, well-produced effort that won't harm Keys' reputation.
Yet this 15-song CD isn't the artistic step forward some might have desired. Certainly, there's no faulting Keys's talents. With a voice both technically proficient and moving, she's capable of great depth, best displayed here on ballads such as "If I Ain't Got You." It has the grandeur and sweep of gospel, yet it's a relatively simple song that might have evaporated with a less confident singer. On "Diary," a lovely slow jam driven by Keys' piano, she's joined by neo-soul pioneers Tony! Toni! Tone! (minus founding member Raphael Saadiq). Keys' voice has a beautiful shimmer, and she tends to help herself by resisting the kinds of excessive melismatic curlicues that are often equated with soul singing these days.
If Keys wanted to release a ballad as her first single, either of these would have been a better choice than "You Don't Know My Name." It's not a bad song, but it isn't an especially compelling one either. It's a little too methodical to achieve the real emotion it's so clearly aiming for.
Keys is usually best when such fussiness is kept to a minimum, as on "Wake Up," yet another ballad. Although this album leans heavily toward slow songs, Keys opens up on more upbeat fare such as "Karma" and especially "Heartburn," the latter accented by stuttering co-production by Timbaland, who's so good behind the boards he must frighten himself sometimes. On "Dragon Days," Keys shows off a smoky, off-kilter '70s soul feel reminiscent of Ann Peebles. Keys' desire to step away from her image as a soul chanteuse and loosen up is as welcome as it is apparent.
One wishes she'd stretched out even more. At a certain point, this album's ballads - including "When You Really Love Someone," "Slow Down" and "Samsonite Man" - begin to spill into one another without real distinction. Lyrically, there are too many cliches, but Keys' voice is such that one is usually willing to overlook them. Keys has yet to make a lousy song, but you just know there's more to her than she has shown on her first two albums. Keys has again made a good album. At least for now, we're left waiting for a great one.
The Diary of Alicia Keys (J-Records) ** 1/2