Alicia Keys

February 20

Alicia Keys is so 2001's Lauryn Hill: a young, beautiful, smart African-American woman with more talent than the white critical community knows how to handle, pushed to the lip of the mainstream media stage by editors and producers grateful for the chance to chip away at their guilt over never taking Mary J. Blige seriously enough. Is that a cynical interpretation of the rise of a personality who may or may not have made the transition from misunderstood artist to cornrowed cause célèbre without the support of the radio/print/TV axis? Indubitably. But that doesn't mean it's not a little true, especially of a business as cynical as the music industry. (Do you have a more reasonable explanation for Hoobastank?)

Yet Keys has performed admirably in the middle of a hurricane that is about far more than her acclaimed debut record, the rich, accomplished Songs in A Minor. Mostly that's meant saying intelligent things when asked stupid questions and letting her music do the talking for her. To wit, Keys has played a remarkable number of live shows since her album hit last summer, making the crucial time to hone her craft rather than recline into her still-impressive SoundScan figures--a rare treat for fans of live R&B hardened to the reality of most major-label promotional campaigns. And that's exactly why Keys will outlive the hype around her, however well-meaning it may be: Hype is by nature an ephemeral phenomenon, attracted to lightning in a bottle--the kind that only strikes once.

Keys, who on Songs righteously tackles "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" by the ultimate long-distance runner, Prince, is more like the bottle than the lightning: a tireless, hard-working body dedicated to delivering truly fascinating work again and again. What a shame that in their quest to package their miracle all the rabid stargazers have missed how special she really is.

 
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