At Sunday's Grammy Awards ceremony, Alicia Keys graciously thanked Prince for handing her the prize for best female R&B vocal performance for her smash "No One." But she has so much more to thank him for.
T.S. Eliot once wrote that, "bad poets imitate; good poets steal." And Keys' latest effort "As I Am" leaves no doubt that she's doing one or the other—especially on the CD's second hit, "Like You'll Never See Me Again."
It doesn't take a classically trained musician like Keys to hear that she's channeling Prince – from the keyboards, guitar licks and swell of strings, to the breathy pitch of the vocals. You can even imagine his Royal Badness himself crooning, or working up to a scream, on the line " . . . kiss me like you'll never see me again." But is Keys, 26 (or 28, depending on the source), a shameless mimic or a smooth criminal?
After all, the hypnotic synthesizer intro/refrain (played on a Moog, no less) is nothing if not pure Prince, in a "Purple Rain" vein with a dash of "Diamonds and Pearls." (In all fairness to Keys, an Entertainment Weekly cover story last fall did mention "Purple Rain" as one of her inspirations.) And Keys does work her take on a Princely theme well. "Like You'll Never See Me Again" is a little bit '80s, a little bit '90s, and all pop confection. Ear candy that leaves you wanting, maybe even craving, to listen again.
Yet the tune's plea that "every time you hold me/hold me like this is the last time . . . promise that you'll love me/love me like you'll never see me again" helps elevate it to art. It's pop art, but art nonetheless, that really speaks to the uncertainty of our times, and the fragility of our relationships in this era of war and fear. That ability to tap into the psyche of the moment, both musically and lyrically, is what's made Keys, who's dazzled us since her 2001 debut, a megastar.
More importantly, it's that quality, along with her tremendous talent and distinctive musical voice – a fusion of classical, R&B, pop and hip-hop, to name a few of the genres Keys brings together – that makes her a true artist. She shares that status with fellow prodigy Prince, whose presence and music captured the pulse of a generation that came of age with the rise of the Religious Right and a "greed is good" mentality.
"Like You'll Never See Me Again" isn't Keys' most original or innovative work (for that, look back to her first CD, "Songs in A Minor," or 2005's live "Alicia Keys Unplugged"). But the earnestness, urgency and passion of her delivery paired with echoes of Prince, a kindred if edgier spirit, dare you to resist being drawn under her spell.
Clearly, "As I Am" is Keys' most commercial CD yet, in more ways than one. With it, she's gone from famous to ubiquitous. She's glamorous and she's everywhere, from her MySpace page to the TV in your living room, rocking the Glendale, Ariz., stadium crowd during the Super Bowl pre-game show Sunday. (And is there anyone who hasn't heard "No One" on the "27 Dresses" trailer or "Like You'll Never See Me Again" on ABC's promo for the return of "All My Children's" Angie and Jesse?)
The sound that drives the CD, laden with synthesizers, programmed drums and programmed strings, serves those songs reasonably well – the disc's two hits so far. Though after hearing "No One" multiple times, I now understand why a co-worker of mine wants to pull her hair out every time she hears that ersatz organ pumping away underneath the melody. Once your ears pick it up, you realize it's a lot like hearing a tuba in a funk band. Not something you want, let alone need. Especially when you've got a voice as sure and soulful as Keys' to carry everything that's good about "No One's" groove.
That's a minor flaw in a song that largely satisfies, which can't be said of a few other tracks on the CD. "Go Ahead," with a forgettable melody and droning chorus, is the weakest link for me. Inexplicably, that tedious chorus is reprised in the very next track, "Superwoman," which should have soared on the strength of Keys' lyrics but barely manages to get off the ground.
Get past those less-than-stellar cuts, however, and you'll hear the gifted singer/songwriter in Keys take charge on the most memorable material "As I Am" has to offer. When she takes on a weary, wary, yet ultimately hopeful tone in "The Thing About Love," Keys is as convincing about love's costs and rewards as she ever was in "Fallin'" or "If I Ain't Got You," among the best songs of her young career.
What finally wins me over, though, is the CD's next-to-last track. When Keys sings "Tell Me Something," with all the urgency of "Like You'll Never See Me Again," plus the maturity and poignancy of "The Thing About Love," I'm sold.
Her cry, part outpouring, part proclamation, brings "As I Am" full circle: "Don't wanna wait to bring you flowers/waste another hour/let alone another day/I'm gonna tell you something . . . won't wait till it's too late." And I'm listening to every word she has to say.
Tracie Fellers is a writer and editor who lives in Greensboro, N.C.