The Number Ones

August 18, 2001

The Number Ones: Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'”

Stayed at #1:

6 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Alicia Keys seemed too good to be true. I didn’t trust her. When the 20-year-old Keys became MTV-omnipresent, it seemed like Clive Davis had figured out how to sand all the rough edges off of the woozy, psychedelic neo-soul that was making mainstream inroads at the time. Artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu were ultra-talented but also mercurial and unpredictable. Where mainstream R&B singers adapted rap beats and poses, D’Angelo and Badu and their contemporaries took different things from rap — the sense of rhythmic experimentation, the cut-and-paste approach to musical history. That whole Soulquarian movement was hugely exciting, and to a total outsider like me, Alicia Keys seemed like a threat to all that.

Alicia Keys wasn’t a threat because she was untalented; it was quite the opposite. Keys seemed like a record executive’s dream. She wrote and often produced her own stuff. She was a prodigy who’d been playing piano since she was barely old enough to walk. She looked like a model. She’d grown up in New York and absorbed the sound of rap music, almost through osmosis. She gave off the impression that she’d been immaculately media-trained, that she’d been grown in a record-label lab. The support of Clive Davis, who’d turned Whitney Houston into a commercial juggernaut and who wasn’t exactly known for facilitating his artists’ challenging artistic statements, seemed like another cause for suspicion. I thought of Keys as a product of the machine — one who assumed the form of a neo-soul insurgent while slinging a form of streamlined pop that wouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable.

As usual, I had it all fucked up. Alicia Keys was hugely talented at a wildly young age, and she did make a smooth and frictionless form of pop music, but those aren’t ultimately bad things. Even though she was young, Alicia Keys was already a music-business veteran who’d fought her way out of a couple of bad label situations. Clive Davis has a rep for molding artists into chart behemoths, but with Keys, he was smart enough to take a hands-off approach after other execs had tried to dictate the path of Keys’ career. “Fallin’,” Alicia Keys’ pop breakthrough and first #1 hit, was her debut single, but it was also the product of years of struggle. You might even hear that struggle in the song itself.

Alicia Augello Cook grew up Hell’s Kitchen, back in the day when that Manhattan neighborhood actually earned its name, before it was a strip of decent restaurants and off-Broadway theaters. (When Alicia was born, the #1 song in America was John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.”) Alicia’s mother worked multiple jobs; her father wasn’t around. Alicia was an only child, and she lived with her mother in a one-bedroom apartment. Alicia started singing in school musicals when she was still in preschool, and she started playing piano at six. She studied seriously, learning the classical canon and playing for hours every day. Eventually, she dropped her exhausting slate of after-school activities to focus entirely on piano.

Alicia was 12 when she started writing songs, and she was 14 when she enrolled in New York’s Professional Performing Arts School. Her whole biography gives the impression of a classic young overachiever. Alicia moved from classical piano to jazz, and she also had big ideas about pop stardom. As a teenager, Alicia took vocal lessons in Harlem, and that’s where manager Jeff Robinson discovered her. Robinson’s brother was one of Alicia’s teachers, and she was performing at the Police Athletic League center in Harlem as part of a girl group called, appropriately enough, Ambition. Ambition never got a record deal, and they eventually broke up, but Robinson signed Alicia and convinced her to try for a solo career. Robinson is also the one who came up with the Alicia Keys stage name; the artist originally planned to call herself Alicia Wilde.

Jeff Robinson booked Alicia Keys to play some showcases, and Jermaine Dupri’s father Michael Mauldin signed her to Columbia Records in 1996, when she was 15. Columbia turned out to be a bad fit. Alicia was still in high school, though not for long. She graduated at 16, serving as her school’s valedictorian, and she started studying at Columbia University (no relation) while working with the label. The execs at Columbia tried to mold her into a pop-friendly teenage R&B singer. She wanted to write her own songs and to pursue her own aesthetic ideas, and the label wasn’t interested. The whole time that she was on Columbia, Alicia only released two songs: “Little Drummer Girl” on a Christmas compilation from Jermaine Dupri’s So So Def label and “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)” on the Men In Black soundtrack.

Alicia Keys hated working with the outside producers at Columbia, so she decided to teach herself how to produce. Alicia moved into a Harlem apartment with her much-older boyfriend Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, and they built a bedroom studio there. When she brought her tracks to Columbia, the label rejected them. In 1998, Alicia fought to get out of her Columbia contract, and Clive Davis immediately signed her to Arista, paying Columbia a pile of money for the rights to the songs that Alicia had recorded while under contract to that label. “Fallin'” was one of those songs. In retrospect, it’s crazy that a big label worked so hard to alienate the young can’t-miss prospect that they’d just signed, but that’s the record business for you. Alicia landed songs on the soundtracks of Dr. Doolittle 2 and the 2000 Shaft remake, but soon after she signed with Arista, the label pushed Clive Davis out. Davis immediately started J Records, his next label. He got distribution through BMG, and he took Alicia Keys with him.

In certain circles, Clive Davis is notorious for refusing to allow his artists any artistic freedom; Kelly Clarkson, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, spent years fuming about Clive’s assessment of her songwriting abilities. But Clive Davis let Alicia Keys do her own thing. He trusted her, and he had good reason. Clive had heard the music that Alicia was making on her own. Songs In A Minor, Keys’ 2001 debut album, features contributions from some big songwriters and producers: Brian McKnight, Jermaine Dupri, Kandi Burruss. But Alicia Keys wrote and produced much of the album herself. “Fallin’,” the first single, is all Alicia; she’s the sole writer and producer.

Alicia Keys wrote “Fallin'” in a rush, while some of her other tracks were being mixed at Columbia. She’s said that the song was inspired by a real relationship. (I would assume that she wrote the song about Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, but I don’t think she’s ever specified.) When Alicia first got to work on “Fallin’,” she was thinking that she might give the song to another Columbia artist, the extremely young R&B prodigy Kimberly Scott. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Alicia says, “I thought how crazy it would be for somebody young to sing this deep song about life and love and bring it across as if they lived it.” Alicia didn’t seem to consider the idea that she was also very young, but by the time she finished the track, she realized that she should keep it for herself.

“Fallin'” is a simple song, and its simplicity is what makes it stand out. The song opens with Alicia Keys’ bare voice, and for the first few melismastic syllables, she sounds wracked with pain: “I keep on fallin’ in and out of love with you.” By the time she gets to the “out of love” part, though, her voice slides into an easy, bluesy groove, her vocal cadence syncing up with her piano arpeggio. The howl turns into a sort of sigh. She’s singing about an emotionally uncertain state, and she sings in a way that mirrors that state. By the time she hits the second line, gospel-style backing vocals well up behind her, emphasizing certain lines: “Sometimes I love ya!” But those backing vocals disappear when she sings that sometimes this other person makes her feel blue. And then the drums kick in. Given that “Fallin'” was the first thing that most of us heard from Alicia Keys, that’s a remarkably self-assured intro.

I can’t separate that “Fallin'” intro from the image of Alicia Keys in the video. Director Chris Robinson, who would later make the movie ATL, films Keys in a tight close-up, her braids framing her unlined face just so. At first, she’s looking down at her piano. But when she sings the words “with you,” she looks up, making eye contact with the camera. It’s an electric moment. Again and again, she makes eye contact with you, the viewer, and it never loses its charge. Maybe that’s why I didn’t trust Alicia Keys at first. Maybe there was too much power behind those eyes.

The “Fallin'” video has a narrative, though it doesn’t necessarily need one. We see Alicia Keys walking through New York, then boarding a bus that takes her out of the city, across country roads. She looks out the window at women working on chain gangs, under armed supervision, and they mouth along with the song’s backing vocals. Then Alicia walks into a prison, staring down the guard who runs the metal detector over her, and comes face-to-face, across a glass pane, with her boyfriend, an inmate at the prison. When they sit down, he looks up at the camera, and he’s got that eye-contact power, too. It makes too much sense that these two people with their insane, expressive eyes should end up together. People who can do that eye thing must just be drawn toward one another on a mystical level. They share a moment of powerful human contact, and then it’s back to the cell with him. (Alicia later said that she wanted to play the inmate, not the visitor, but Clive Davis vetoed that decision.)

When “Fallin'” kicks in, the song remains spare. There are only a few musical elements on there. The chopped-up drum loop comes from Alicia’s boyfriend Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, and it may or may not be a sample of James Brown’s 1966 classic “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” (“It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” peaked at #8. It’s a 9. James Brown’s highest-charting single, 1965s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) Whether or not it’s a direct sample, that drum-loop ties “Fallin'” to a long history of soul balladry, and its mechanistic head-nod bump evokes ’90s East Coast rap. The backing vocals come in and out with sharp precision, and they sometimes sound a little like samples, too. We also get pizzicato violin-plucks from Miri Ben-Ari, the future Kanye West collaborator who would briefly find fame as a hip-hop violinist, and guitar from the excellently named session veteran Billy “Spaceman” Patterson.

Even at its most orchestrally grand, “Fallin'” sounds locked-in and elemental — as if the song was specifically created to cut against the grain of the bright, programmed club-thump that dominated that moment’s R&B. With all those allusions to classic soul, “Fallin'” sounded, consciously or not, like a throwback. Alicia’s delivery is slow and deliberate, and “Fallin'” has far fewer lyrics than most of the hits of that moment. One of those lyrics is constructed pretty awkwardly: “Just when I think I’ve taken more than would a fool, I start fallin’ back in love with you.” But Alicia sounds raw and graceful and confident, and she makes that line work. When Alicia and the backup singers cascade all over each other on the bridge, “Fallin'” starts to sound less like a retro exercise, more like something eternal.

Because of her allusions to older styles, some early-’00s critics overreached, comparing Alicia Keys to classic soul figures like Aretha Franklin. That kind of thing was always ridiculous. Alicia Keys has a warm, fluid voice, but she’s not a force of nature like the greats who she consciously evokes. Her delivery is a little too light, too studied. The music holds back, too, never exploding into full catharsis. But that simplicity would cut through the noise. When “Fallin'” came on the radio, it didn’t fade into the background. People noticed.

Clive Davis put his full promotional weight behind Alicia Keys and “Fallin’.” He wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey, asking her to book Alicia Keys on her show. When Oprah heard “Fallin’,” she agreed. Alicia played the song on Oprah, using “Moonlight Sonata” as her intro, and she left a big impression. She performed on The Tonight Show, too. Songs In A Minor came out in June of 2001, and it debuted at #1 — a rare feat for a new artist’s debut album. The “Fallin'” single went gold — and then later, in the streaming era, triple platinum. After “Fallin’,” reached #1, Alicia followed it with the ballad “A Woman’s Worth,” which peaked #7. (It’s a 6.) A third single, Alicia’s cover of Prince’s 1982 B-side “How Come U Don’t Call Me,” peaked at #59, but Songs In A Minor still went platinum seven times over.

You will probably not be shocked to learn that Alicia Keys cleaned up at the Grammys in 2002. Grammy voters love few things more than a young classicist who can sell records by the pile. That night, Alicia won five awards. “Fallin'” won Song Of The Year, and Alicia took home Best New Artist, beating out Linkin Park, David Gray, India.Arie, and Nelly Furtado. (We’ll see Furtado in this column eventually.) Grammy-anointed ingenues don’t exactly have a great track record on the pop charts, but Alicia Keys stuck around for a long time — long enough that she’d eventually host a couple of Grammy telecasts herself. Alicia was never the fake neo-soul Trojan Horse that I’d once imagined. She was just a pop star, and she was a good one. We’ll see Alicia Keys in this column again.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s the supremely fun 2001 “Fallin'” remix that features re-recorded Alicia Keys vocals and fired-up verses from Busta Rhymes and his Flipmode Squad collaborator Rampage:

(Busta Rhymes’ two highest-charting singles, the 1999 Janet Jackson collab “What’s It Gonna Be?!” and the 2003 Mariah Carey/Flipmode Squad team-up “I Know What You Want,” both peaked at #3. “What’s It Gonna Be?!” is a 6, and “I Know What You Want” is a 7. Busta was also a guest on the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha,” a #2 hit in 2005. That one is a 4. Rampage raps on “I Know What You Want,” but his biggest hit as lead artist is the 1997 Billy Lawrence collab “Take It To The Streets,” which peaked at #34.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: At the beginning of a 2003 Black Eyed Peas track that’s more politely known as “Let’s Get It Started,” Fergie sings a big vocal riff. This somehow never occurred to me at the time, but that riff is a straight-up “Fallin'” interpolation. Here’s the “Let’s Get It Started” video:

(“Let’s Get It Started” peaked at #21. The Black Eyed Peas will eventually appear in this column, and Fergie will be here on her own, too.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Alicia Keys and Elmo singing a version of “Fallin'” called “Dancin'” on a 2004 episode of Sesame Street:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Mac Miller’s weed-themed 2011 “Fallin'” parody “Smokin”:

(Mac Miller’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the posthumous 2020 track “Good News,” which peaked at #17. As a guest, Mac made it to #9 on Ariana Grande’s 2009 single “The Way.” That one is a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Gaten Matarazzo, Dustin from Stranger Things, singing “Fallin'” in the 2022 movie Honor Society:

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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