In the current era where songs are viral today and dissolve into a mere hum tomorrow, disciplined musicianship in young acts is a rare find. Alt-R&B polymath and the Internet bandmate Steve Lacy gave a TED Talk on self-producing and received his first solo Grammy nomination in 2020 for his debut album Apollo XXI just as he reached legal drinking age. Teen pop phenom Billie Eilish and older brother Finneas O’Connell teamed up on Eilish’s 2019 debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, which soundtracked the Gen-Z “e-girl” movement and dominated the following year’s Grammys ceremony.
The ascension for both Lacy and Eilish was a gradual climb throughout their childhoods. So it went for former child prodigy Gabi Wilson. Fifteen years ago a 10-year-old Wilson — now known as R&B singer-guitarist H.E.R., a Grammy darling herself — performed “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys on The Today Show. Well into the prime of her career by that point, Keys was an old soul who had influenced the next generation of multi-instrumentalists, starting with an album she wrote and recorded as a teenager as well: her gripping 2001 breakout Songs In A Minor, which turns 20 this week.
A Hell’s Kitchen-raised beatnik, Keys (born Alicia Augello Cook) began studying classical piano at age 7, enrolled at Manhattan’s Professional Performing Arts School at 12, and by 14 had become an avid student of jazz. A multiracial teenager, Keys had an appreciation for Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin as well as attending freestyle rap battles in Washington Square Park during the early ’90s. Keys was also fond of Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, and she worshipped Marvin Gaye’s 1971 orchestral masterpiece What’s Going On, which introduced the budding artist to soul music. Skilled as a pianist and vocalist, she inked a deal with Columbia Records at 15.
After graduating high school as an honors student, 16-year-old Keys was accepted to Columbia University on a full scholarship, but left just four weeks into the first semester. With a culmination of skill and focus, Keys retreated to the recording studio, soon faced with uncertainty from the team that signed her. Keys had been a highlight on Men In Black: The Album along with Jermaine Dupri’s 12 Soulful Nights Of Christmas compilation, but label executives wanted the singer to alter her sound and image to become more “radio-friendly.”
Keys’ debut album was originally slated for release in 1998, but disenchanted with Columbia, she sought an escape route. She found it in music mogul Clive Davis, who got her out of her contract and nabbed her for J Records, the imprint he was in the process of launching while retiring from Arista Records. During a 2001 interview with The Guardian, Keys spoke on her time at Columbia:
I tried so hard to make it work, but it was all wrong. These big-name producers made me write with people I didn’t like. They messed up so the music sounded awful. Then they’d say, “Hey, baby, why don’t you come over to my place tonight?” They were so disrespectful.
Defying expectations of what a classical musician or pop star should look like, Keys reconnected with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, who she had met in the early ’90s and would become co-producer of Songs In A Minor. Simultaneously recrafting her debut album and songwriting for Y2K R&B heartthrob Mario, Keys and Brothers settled in a one-bedroom apartment where the two would record Keys’ vocals, later going to the studio to add instrumentation.
Confidently donning signature Fulani braids, Keys’ style incorporated the poetic neo-soul movement of the new millennium with a street edge. Following aristocratic Songs In A Minor opener “Piano & I,” on which Keys flips Beethoven composition “Piano Sonata No. 14” into a hip-hop vibe, the album drifts into envious anthem “Girlfriend.” Co-produced by Jermaine Dupri, the grandiose track sampled the 1995 Ol’ Dirty Bastard cut “Brooklyn Zoo,” lending a roughneck edge to Keys’ prodigious ability. At 19, Keys ambitiously called Prince seeking permission to cover his 1982 loosie ballad “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” Although the Purple One was particular about his catalog, he invited Keys to his Paisley Park estate and became a lifelong friend.
Then came the song that former American Idol judge Simon Cowell jokingly banned contestants from performing at auditions. As the first single from Songs In A Minor, “Fallin'” ruminates on the frustrations of devotional love over Keys’ gospel-tinged vocals and intricate piano notes. At 20, her soul-baring lyrics had the maturity of a middle-aged woman who’s reached her wits’ end: “I keep on fallin’ in and outta love with you/ Sometimes I love ya, sometimes you make me blue/ Sometimes I feel good, at times I feel used/ Lovin’ you, darlin’, makes me so confused.”
The lyrics were simple, but the delivery struck fans and critics alike as “Fallin'” hit #1 on the Hot 100 and received numerous accolades — including four Grammy Awards in 2002, Song Of The Year and Record Of The Year. (The Grammys have their issues, but they clearly appreciate a young prodigy.) After Columbia Records doubted that Keys’ ballads would touch the masses, Davis backed Keys’ vision, sending radio spins for “Fallin'” into overdrive. Billboard eventually ranked it as the 29th most successful song of the 2000s.
Keys penned the song after reading an article about Santra Rucker, a woman who was given 13 consecutive life sentences for conspiracy — later reduced to 23 years — for protecting her boyfriend, who was a drug dealer. After Rucker was imprisoned, Keys became her pen pal, offering her moral support. Art imitates life, and in the visual for “Fallin'” a chain gang of imprisoned women lip sync the song in a gloomy field.
Like “Fallin’,” follow-up single “A Woman’s Worth” had a retro feel. Co-written with singer-songwriter, background vocalist, and former manager Erika Rose, the song was inspired by cosmetic brand L’Oréal, whose slogan is “because you’re worth it.” Keys sang from experience: As a new R&B act, she was often challenged to prove her value, even being manipulated to pose topless on the cover of Dazed & Confused (now known as Dazed). In a 2002 New York Times article, Keys succinctly explained why she refused to conform to industry standards:
Gracefully and without rancor, Ms. Keys’ songs contest the hip-hop mentality that often reduces women to party toys or hood ornaments. “There’s so many stereotypes and lines drawn, especially for women, as I see the more I grow,” Ms. Keys said. “And maybe you change every day. Maybe one day you’re a damn thug and the next day you’re the sweetest thing. Depending on people, you know? I’m definitely not one to look at people and judge them, but I do know that we have to raise the standard.”
The heart of Songs In A Minor was fuelled by Keys’ vulnerabilities, whether delicately voicing her anxieties on the Barry White-sampling quiet storm deep cut “Troubles” or taking artistic cues from fellow mainstream soul artists India.Arie, Maxwell, and Raphael Saddiq and transforming them into her own kind of authenticity. Staying true to the piano capabilities that she learned at 7, Keys unashamedly released the album that Columbia Records didn’t want her to make, and it debuted at #1 on the US Billboard 200. Twenty years into her inimitable career, she has continued to raise the standard.