Five time Grammy award-winning newcomer, Alicia Keys' much anticipated Dec. 2 sophomore release, "The Diary of Alicia Keys," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, alluding to a highly successful follow-up to her multiplatinum 2001 debut, "Songs in A Minor," which delivered the smash hit, "Fallin'."
Once again, listeners will find themselves falling helplessly in love with the Manhattan singer/songwriter's brilliant classicism as she tickles the ivories on the opening cut, "Harlem's Nocturne." Drawing on the diverse influences of Aretha Franklin, Nirvana, and Beethoven, Keys' "Nocturne" invites the listener to enter into the private world of her diary: "Sometimes it's hard to say, so I take all I've got/and I put it into/my diary, can you feel it?" Clearly, the entire album reads as a diary set to music, which could elicit a voyeuristic flavor to the disc, if not for the fact that Keys is a throwback to a kinder, gentler era.
Keys' velvety pipes expertly cover Gladys Knight's '70s classic, "If I Was Your Woman/Walk On By," composed by Burt Bacharach. This track is both heady and soulful, as is the Curtis Mayfield-sounding, "Karma." Spunky and direct, "Karma's" retro feel confirms Keys' suspicions that perhaps she was born in the wrong generation, as a recent online interview with Alicia suggests. Yet, Keys deftly transcends generational boundaries in ways that her scantily clad pop-princess contemporaries only dream of. "Diary" offers delights for young hip-hoppers as well as old rockers, and everyone in between. Older fans will love the Dionne Warwick-like influences, while younger fans will devour the Mary J. Blige flavor, which is evidenced in up-tempo cuts like "Heartburn," and the synthesized, street-smart "So Simple," which showcases Keys' versatility.
All ages will love the vulnerability of the melodic, "You Don't Know my Name," in which Keys portrays herself as a waitress who has fallen in love with one of her regulars. In keeping with the diary theme, midstream on this track Alicia forgoes singing, choosing instead to speak words of longing directly to the object of her hidden affection. Slick production on this cut, combined with Keys' pristine vocals, place this song in a genre of its own, one that is undeniably refreshing.
In spite of the album's overall appeal, Keys' abilities as a lyricist often flounder. "Dragon Days" is saturated with sappy cliches: "Like a damsel in distress, I'm stressing/You're my knight in shining armor." Keys then proceeds to spell out: "D-R-A-G-O-N days got me D-R-A-G-G-I-N." This cutesy, alphabetical play on words is clearly unnecessary here. Likewise, the lyrics to "Heartburn" describe being smitten in this way: "When he comes around, I gettin' to feel ill inside my chest. It's like I'm goin' into cardiac arrest, oh/I can't deny I've got this heartburn burnin' in my soul (heartburn). Call the fire department (ooh, heartburn)."
Regardless, of lyrical deficiencies, "The Diary of Alicia Keys," is a fantastic listen. Keys' elegant fusion of soul, blues, jazz and pop, is innovative and unrivaled by anything currently on the market.
Vicki St. James is the midday air personality on Mix 96, 96.1 FM.