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.
The human voice is a remarkable thing. In a lot of ways, Alicia Keys’ “No One” is a perfectly adequate circa-2007 pop song. On paper, “No One” is simple and slight and vaguely banal. It’s got a bunch of little ear-candy hooks and a central melody that’s simple and identifiable enough to work as a ringtone. The lyrics are both heartfelt and nebulous — sentimental enough to be gloopy, nonspecific enough that just about anyone could identify with the song without stretching too hard. I have a pretty easy time imagining a version of “No One” from someone like Akon. But Akon wouldn’t have sung it like that.
That’s where the human voice comes in. Alicia Keys has always been a smooth, efficient pop-music professional. She’s not a boundary-breaker or a livewire; you always feel like you’re in safe hands with her. That was her sales pitch — an old-school piano virtuoso who could entertain grandparents and little kids, someone who was fluent in the aesthetic signifiers of rap music but who would use those signifiers in service of ’70s-style smooth-soul balladry. But Alicia doesn’t sing “No One” like she’s triangulating her biggest possible audience. She sings it like she’s got something at stake.
“No One” is the simplest kind of love song. It makes general allusions to people trying to keep a couple apart — a bit like how Akon did on “Don’t Matter” earlier that same year — but it never gets more concrete than that. Instead, what’s concrete is the ragged, desperate tone of Alicia Key’s voice. Alicia never loses the song’s melody, but she howls and rasps and sounds like she’s near tears. She commits. In a moment when the post-human sleekness of Auto-Tune was newly dominant, Alicia’s commitment stood out, and it made “No One” feel a whole lot bigger and more resonant than it might’ve managed otherwise.
Six years before “No One,” Alicia Keys was introduced to the world as a ready-made pop prodigy. Clive Davis had been pushed out of his perch at Arista, the label that he’d founded, and Alicia Keys was his signal to the world that he wasn’t going anywhere. Alicia was the flagship artist at J Records, Clive’s new label, and she brought the same kind of classical grace as past Clive proteges like Whitney Houston. Alicia got to #1 with “Fallin’,” her very first single, and she followed that one up with a whole storm of hits.
For a few years, Alicia Keys was inescapable. She was all over the radio, selling records, winning Grammys. Alicia never seemed like a transformative figure, but she did a good job tailoring her skills to a pop landscape where those skills were less and less in demand. In her first couple of years in the spotlight, Alicia Keys managed seven top-10 hits. She capped that run off by returning to #1 with “My Boo,” her duet with Usher. “My Boo” was more Usher’s song than Alicia’s, and Usher had originally wanted Beyoncé for the duet, but Alicia worked just fine as a substitute. In the context of that upper-echelon pop-star tier, Alicia Keys belonged.
It would’ve made sense for Alicia Keys to capitalize on that success, to knock out a quick follow-up to her 2003 sophomore album The Diary Of Alicia Keys. Alicia was working on a new record when her grandmother died of cancer in 2006. Alicia and her grandmother were close, and the loss unmoored her. To keep herself together, Alicia went on a solo trip to Egypt for a month. When she did get around to releasing her third album As I Am, she credited that experience with keeping her together. Years later, Alicia named her son Egypt.
Upon her return, Alicia Keys felt less pressure to keep up with the pop stardom grind. She took a couple of acting roles, in the 2007 hitman caper Smokin’ Aces and in the beach-read adaptation The Nanny Diaries. Those movies weren’t exactly cultural bellwethers, but I remember Alicia being pretty good in Smokin’ Aces. She probably could’ve done more acting after that, but she mostly hasn’t. While working on those movies, Alicia also kept recording As I Am.
For the most part, As I Am is a more mature, developed version of what Alicia Keys was already doing on her first two albums. It’s fine, you know? I won’t ever complain when an album like As I Am is playing, but it’s not the kind of record that grabs me by the throat, either. It’s a calm, adult, professionally made middlebrow soul record — pleasant and unthreatening and generally pretty good. As I Am happened to come out at a generational-shift moment when computerized weirdness was taking over pop music, and a record like that could’ve gotten lost if it didn’t have at least one undeniable song. As it happens, As I Am had one undeniable song. It had “No One.”
Later on, Alicia Keys said that “No One” felt like divine inspiration, a gift from God. When she recorded the song, Alicia was still together with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, her longtime boyfriend. Brothers, 11 years older than Alicia, had been an unsuccessful rapper in the late ’80s, and he went on to write and produce for singers like Angie Stone and former Number Ones artist Mario. As a teenager in the late ’90s, Alicia was signed to Columbia Records, and she bristled against the label’s attempts to present her as a teenage R&B phenom. So Alicia moved into Brothers’ Harlem apartment, and the two of them figured out her sound at his home studio. For Alicia Keys’ first three albums, he was her main collaborator.
Alicia Keys and Kerry Brothers co-founded a studio and production company called Krucial Keys, and they co-wrote “No One” with George M. Harry. Harry, a New York producer and mixtape DJ, was signed to Krucial Keys, and he went by the name DJ Dirty Harry. (Good name.) “No One” was one of the last songs written for the As I Am album, and Alicia told Billboard that the song “just wrote itself.” Alicia knew right away that the song was something special. She changed her album-rollout plans, which were already in place, to make “No One” the lead single.
Alicia Keys played a bunch of different instruments on “No One” — piano, obviously, but also synth, mellotron, and synthetic strings. There’s apparently some vocoder in there, too, and Alicia did that. I like the idea of Alicia Keys being the one person in the early Auto-Tune era who still used a vocoder. Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, co-producing with Alicia, did the drum-machine programming, which is sharp but not cluttered. The only other musician on the track is Australian session guy Steve Mostyn, another longtime Alicia Keys collaborator, on bass and acoustic guitar. The arrangement is clean and relatively sparse. The video’s opening shot is the tines of a music box, and the central piano line really does sound like a music box. This was a pop moment where even an old-school virtuoso like Alicia was shooting for a mechanistic style.
On “No One,” Alicia sings about an everlasting kind of support — two people doing everything in their power to support each other, assuring each other that everything will be all right. When the rain is pouring down, and Alicia Keys’ heart is hurting, you will always be around; this she knows for certain. She knows that some people search the world to find something like what she has. People will try to divide something so real, but ’til the end of time, she’s telling you that no one will get in the way of what she feels for you.
When “No One” was taking off, my wife worked at a group home on Staten Island. (We got married when “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” was sitting at #1. I guess I could’ve mentioned that in the Soulja Boy column, but we didn’t Superman that ho at the wedding, so it didn’t really fit that column’s narrative.) The kids in her group home lived unspeakably hard lives; she would come home everyday exhausted and shattered just from hearing their stories. Those kids loved “No One.” The song’s depiction of love might’ve been a bit vague and hacky, but it really spoke to these young people who’d never been granted the kind of unconditional love that Alicia Keys sang about. I think of those kids whenever I hear the song, and it changes the way I hear it.
In a lot of ways, “No One” is a bright and streamlined pop song. The track fits into that time when people were using iPods and when divisions among genres were mattering less and less. The wordless “ooh-uh-uh-oh-ohhhh” bit at the end could easily be Akon, and the drum-machine thump carries some distant echo of dance music. But Alicia Keys’ voice is raw and vulnerable and close to cracking. She sounds like she’s all in. “No One” doesn’t even have to be a romantic song. It could just be a song about any kind of all-consuming love. It’s the kind of thing that you could sing to a puppy, and Alicia’s voice gives it dramatic weight.
Alicia Keys gave “No One” a huge promotional push. The song’s video is nothing too special, though I like the scenes of Alicia leading a crowd singalong in the rain. But Alicia also released a whole ton of “No One” remixes, and she performed different versions of the song on virtually every awards show. At the 2007 VMAs, just before the single’s commercial release, Alicia sang “No One” and transitioned it into a slightly awkward cover of George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.” (“Freedom ’90” peaked at #8. It’s a 10.) At the American Music Awards a couple of months later, Alicia strung together a few different “No One” remixes, performing with dancehall legends Junior Reid, Beenie Man, and Chaka Demus and Pliers.
“No One” won a couple of trophies at the 2008 Grammys, and Alicia Keys performed twice on that show. She opened the Grammys by duetting with the recorded voice of former Number Ones artist Frank Sinatra. Later in the show, she did yet another version of “No One” — this time with a full string section and a bonus John Mayer guitar solo. (John Mayer’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “Say,” peaked at #12.) I saw Alicia at Hot 97 Summer Jam later in 2008, and she devoted most of her set to surprise appearances from Wu-Tang Clan members before singing “No One.”
“No One” is an adaptable song. Alicia Keys could be onstage with Junior Reid or John Mayer or Ghostface Killah, and the song would still land the same. It was spare enough that different producers could remix the track without fumbling its appeal. That’s got a lot to do with the song’s chart success. “No One” sold millions of downloads, and it’s got big streaming numbers, but the song was especially successful at radio. In 2008, “No One” was the most-played song on American radio. It got played on R&B, pop, and adult-contempo stations, and it even did surprisingly well on the smooth jazz and Latin charts.
As I Am ultimately went quadruple platinum, but none of its other singles made the top 10. Alicia followed “No One” with the heart-wrecked ballad “Like You’ll Never See Me Again,” and that song peaked at #12. None of the other singles from As I Am charted particularly high. Alicia also teamed up with Jack White for “Another Way To Die,” the messy theme song from Quantum Of Solace, the worst of the Daniel Craig Bond movies. That song only got as far as #81. (“Another Way To Die” is Jack White’s only Hot 100 hit as lead artist, but “Icky Thump,” which is somehow the White Stripes’ highest-charting single, made it to #26 in 2007. Also, White reached #28 as a guest on Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” in 2016.)
Alicia Keys has had a few big pop moments since “No One.” In 2012, for instance, she got to #12 with “Girl On Fire,” a big and stormy song that only seemed like it was written as some kind of Hunger Games theme. When I saw Alicia headline a festival in Sweden around that time, “Girl On Fire” was her grand closer. But her biggest pop moment wasn’t one of her own songs. Instead, Alicia guested on a huge rap single that will eventually appear in this column.
For the past decade or so, Alicia Keys has not been a constant pop-chart presence, but she’s done a whole lot of other things. Alicia broke up with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers shortly after “No One,” and she married Swizz Beatz in 2010. (Swizz was one of the many producers who remixed “No One.”) Alicia and Swizz had a couple of kids and did the whole famous-successful-couple routine. Alicia also spent some time as a coach on The Voice and hosted a couple of Grammy telecasts. I thought it was cool when she played two pianos at once.
Alicia Keys is one of those artists who will always be famous, regardless of general relevance. She still pops up on the Hot 100 from time to time. Last year, for instance, she was a guest on the Fivio Foreign/Kanye West track “City Of Gods,” which made it to #46. Alicia released an independent Christmas album last year, and she’ll presumably keep getting Met Gala invites for life. She’s always come off as a chill, confident person, whether hosting the Grammys or doing a nice Stereogum interview a couple of years ago.
I’ve never really thought of Alicia Keys as a huge, generational pop star, but she’s also avoided the wild, sometimes-upsetting career swings that often seem to come with being a huge, generational pop star. In any case, Alicia had a good run, and she seems to have a nice life. I’ve got nothing bad to say about her. It’s entirely possible that she’ll make more big hits, though it’s easier to imagine that happening because of someone sampling one of her old song than from a whole new Alicia Keys track. Even if she has another “No One” in her, I don’t know how another “No One” would do in this day and age. Good thing we had it then.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Odesza, a dance duo who gets booked as a headliner at a baffling number of festivals, sampling “No One” on their 2012 track “Above The Middle”:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: The legandary Aretha Franklin, an artist who’s been in this column a couple of times, covered “No One” on her final album, 2014’s Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Here’s her version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “No One” cover that Cold War Kids recorded for a 2017 Spotify session:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the viral sing-rapper Toosii’s 2019 track “No One,” which is less of an interpolation and more of a loose cover:
(Toosii’s only Hot 100 hit is “Favorite Song,” which just reached a new peak at #17 this week and which seems like it will probably go higher. This Toosii, it might bear mentioning, is not the Toosie who inspired a Drake song that’ll eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Christina Milian singing “No One” at the end of the 2021 Netflix rom-com Resort To Love:
(Christina Milian’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Dip It Low,” peaked at #5. It’s a 6.)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. I know some people search the world to find a book like this, but you don’t have to do that. You can just buy it here.