THE DIARY OF ALICIA KEYS (2003)
1) Harlem's Nocturne; 2) Karma; 3) Heartburn; 4) If I Was Your Woman / Walk On By; 5) You Don't Know My Name; 6) If I Ain't Got You; 7) Diary; 8) Dragon Days; 9) Wake Up; 10) So Simple; 11) When You Really Love Someone; 12) Feeling U, Feeling Me; 13) Slow Down; 14) Samsonite Man; 15) Nobody Not Really.
I'm getting unusually soft: I kind of like this album. It's certainly longer than a professional executioner's torture rack, and it shares all the flaws of its predecessor, as well as all the flaws of R'n'B and all the flaws that the 21st century took over and carefully nurtured from the 20th one, but it turned out to be likeable anyway. I guess the reason is that in two years, Alicia Keys simply became a better songwriter than
Let me just make a brief list of songs that have solid melodic hooks: 'Karma', 'Heartburn', 'If I Ain't Got You', 'Dragon Days', 'Wake Up', 'When You Really Love Someone', 'Samsonite Man' — that's almost half of the album there. Never mind that some of this is self-consciously retro and some self-consciously Whitney Houston; her singing gets me (okay, Whitney's singing also gets me sometimes, but then she didn't sell these zillions of records just for nothing).
The trick is that I had to sit through this more than once. Upon first listen, Diary is even more excruciatingly boring, generic, and "soulless" than A Minor. But then something starts clicking, and from under all the slickness and corporate gloss you start picking out bits and pieces of an aspiring artist who at least understands the basic principles that underly the power of music, even if she is rarely able to properly apply them. That you not only have to have glossy arrangements, that you also got to have hooks; that hooks cannot exist without true emotional force powering them up; and that true emotional force comes not necessarily from living out your songs, but at least from feeling them as meaningful creations. Does she have that understanding? Many will say nay, but I will say yeah.
I really love 'Dragon Days'. As a funky 70-s sendup, it works even better than 'Rock Wit U', ditzy and sexy and catchy, good piano/guitar interplay, good harmonies — if you feel the need to drag this down with some highbrow comment on how this material makes Isaac Hayes turn over in his grave, leave me out of this. I also really love 'Wake Up': it's a strong, well-written, uplifting ballad — if all mainstream balladry were like this, humanity's chances for survival would be a notch higher than they are today.
Overall, it ain't worth taking a lot of time describing the rest, but at least my understanding of why the "standard" critical press took such a liking to Alicia has managed to increase a bit after I'd caught myself unexpectedly enjoying 'Dragon Days'. She's a smartie, both music-wise and image-wise, and she gives out these small bits of "class" that people, who still remember the good old days when artists used to give out large chunks of "class", are hungry to lap up.
But I also understand what might be the single biggest annoying factor in her music: to quote fellow reviewers Wilson & Alroy, her "fatal weakness as a soul singer" is that she has "no vulnerability". Song after song after song, her toughness just starts to get on one's nerves. Feminism and the 'strong woman' concept are okay by me, but soul is about feeling pain and letting others in on it, and there's absolutely no pain whatsoever here, anywhere in sight. 'If I Ain't Got You' is tense and almost epic, but that's an irrealistic "if" out there: it's perfectly obvious that she got you, and the tenseness is simply there so you should understand she ain't never gonna let you go, that egotistic bitch. :) And on 'You Don't Even Know My Name', she plays the part of a waitress (!) who actually initiates the call to a guy who'd been ogling her in the restaurant — it's all a matter of proper initiative, baby. Of course, maybe she's just perfectly honest about it: maybe she really doesn't feel much pain, and if you can't feel pain, better not simulate feeling it. But then it's also a much nastier accusation to fling at someone — not being able to feel pain makes you much less of a human than not letting others feel your pain in your art, after all.
That was probably a twistier argument than any of the melodies on Diary Of Alicia Keys, but my heart doesn't really care too much for twisty melodies, and those that are there prompt it to give out a cautious thumbs up, while the brain, of course, has permanently shut itself off on the subject of recognizing the artistic genius of Alicia, and I can't blame it for that.