‘Songs In A Minor’ at 20: How Alicia Keys’ debut album set the tone for contemporary R&B

After years of composing and recording, rejection and redemption, Alicia Keys was finally free to bare her soul with debut album, “Songs In A Minor.”

Released June 5, 2001 under Clive Davis’ now-defunct J Records, the critically-acclaimed introduction set the new millennium’s artistic bar sky high, and took the 20-year-old New Yorker from young prodigy to an act at the forefront of neo-soul. 

“Songs In A Minor” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and earned Keys five Grammys in 2002, including best new artist and song of the year for “Fallin.”

But it’s not just accolades that affirm the album’s impact. The project set the tone for both Keys’ musical future and the contemporary R&B realm.

“I’m so grateful for this album,” Keys told USA TODAY in a statement. “When I see pictures of that girl from ‘Songs In A Minor,’ I recognize her. I know her, and I know that she is inside me, right now. She’s gotten more mature, had more experiences, she’s definitely gotten way more confident, she has even more creativity to offer. She dreams bigger.”

Singer Alicia Keys performs on stage during her concert in Zurich, Switzerland on Oct. 13, 2002. (Photo: FRANCO GRECO, Associated Press)

Classical influence with hip-hop confidence

Influenced by the stylings of Marvin Gaye and Roberta Flack, the 11-song LP (which, ironically enough, only features one song in the chord of A minor: “Jane Doe”) largely tackles the complexities of relationships, and combines Keys’ classically-trained upbringing and ahead-of-her-time artistry with contemporary flair and hip-hop flavored confidence.

Beethoven meets heavy bass during the album’s tone-setting opener “Piano & I,” while Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s gruff vocals saturate “Girlfriend,” the album’s R&B-soaked admission of jealousy. Keys also pays homage to Prince for a cover of his deep cut “How Come U Don’t Call Me,” and delicately yet dynamically utilizes James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s Man’s World” for her piano-driven, Grammy-winning debut single “Fallin’.”

“She obviously had clear intentions for herself as an artist,” says music journalist Eric Ducker, who was among the first to interview her in 2001 as senior editor of The Fader. “I got the sense she was willing to play the game to an extent, but only so she could ultimately be the person in charge of the art she wanted to put into the world.”

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Keys is ‘undeniably different’

Keys started writing songs for the album at age 14. She was involved in the arrangement and production along with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, Jermaine Dupri, Brian McKnight, Kandi Burruss and others.

Alicia Keys balances her five Grammys at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in 2002. (Photo: DAN MACMEDAN, USAT)

“Songs In A Minor” was “undeniably different” from what Keys’ peers released in 2001, says music and culture journalist Camille Augustin. She points to Usher’s “8701,” India.Arie’s “Acoustic Soul” and Aaliyah’s final self-titled studio album. 

“There was a distinct sound permeating R&B that seemed to continuously evolve from Timbaland, Darkchild, Bryan-Michael Cox, Dre & Vidal, Stargate and Tricky Stewart,” she says. “Then you have Alicia Keys, (who came) with a sonic vision that complimented her writing style.”

Unlike many debuts designed to fulfill a label’s ideals for a new act, Keys’ inaugural project is her own sound from top to bottom, proving how paramount authenticity is to her professional agenda.

During the development of “Songs In A Minor,” Keys faced tension with label Columbia Records over artistic direction. She was able to negotiate out of her contract and signed to Arista Records, then led by the legendary Clive Davis. Keys said Davis encouraged her to be her own type of superstar. Keys followed Davis after he left Arista and founded J Records, eventually releasing “Songs In A Minor” under his label. Keys’ creative autonomy resulted in an astonishingly self-assured effort that showcased her musical maturity. 

“What resonates about ‘Song In A Minor’ is what resonates about all great art: It dares to reveal the truth, raw and unadorned,” said Michelle Burford, writer and collaborator for Keys’ 2020 memoir “More Myself: A Journey.”

“It shines a light on our shared humanity, on the frailties we so often keep hidden for fear that we’ll be judged.” 

Alicia Keys, shown here in 2001, released her debut "Songs In A Minor" on J Records. (Photo: J Records)

Not only does the album blend themes of love and heartbreak, empowerment and fragility, it intermingles elements of classical music, soul, hip-hop and jazz. “All the things that raised me,” says Keys. 

“It represents the journey of a young girl that can come from Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, from difficult circumstances, and can write, produce, arrange, and create her world. 

There’s nothing stopping us from expressing the truth of what we know and our individuality and our honesty. To me that’s one of the enduring legacies of ‘Songs In A Minor’… that you can be your own individual and say what you want to say, how you want to say it, in the way that you want to create it. It’s special, especially when it comes from an honest, real place.” 

Keys paved the way for artists like H.E.R.  

In a review of “Songs In A Minor” for its 10th anniversary reissue, Rolling Stone likened Keys to Stevie Wonder for being “self-reliant (but still pop-friendly).”

Now, with seven studio albums in her discography, Keys’ influence as a composer who helped shape the mainstream contemporary R&B sound is undeniable. 

“Not only (is) studying great pianists a passion of hers, but also studying great composers like Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Prince,” Augustin notes. “What they have in common is their mastery over instruments. Being able to write phrases while writing notes on a piano or guitar is a gift not many artists can hold stake in.”

Keys’ approach to artistic individuality may have laid the foundation for R&B’s brightest young talents, like English singer-songwriters Lianne La Havas and Ella Mai. (La Havas said Keys’ success is “the closest thing” she wanted for her own career, while Mai learned to play piano — and braid her hair — through admiring Keys.) Both go against the grain in an effort to create works focusing on thematic concepts, relatable lyricism and inventive production pairings.

But perhaps the most direct and obvious example of Keys’ influence lies with 23-year-old Gabi Wilson, the Grammy and Academy Award-winning musician who performs under the moniker H.E.R. Like her idol, H.E.R. is a child prodigy who leans into the importance of putting her artistry before her image, and her influences spread across generations and genres.

“I like everything – I love Alicia Keys,” a 10-year-old Wilson said on the “Today Show” in 2007. 

“She sounds and looks like Alicia Keys in the dryer,” said host Hoda Kotb before Wilson sang a rendition of “No One.”

‘I’m not backing down’

Twenty years later, “Songs In A Minor” remains a bold statement of Keys’ limitless creativity. Her compositions showcase her knowledge of her craft, yet still provide a relatable vulnerability listeners continuously gravitate toward.

Her winning fusion of generation-spanning sonics results in a timelessness that doesn’t feel antiquated. As she matured, Keys’ thematic conceptualization became more concrete, and her openness to collaborate intensified. However, at the core of her music, you’ll still hear a sound rooted in her distinct artistic vision.

Alicia Keys reacts after performing during a celebration of life for Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez) (Photo: The Associated Press)

Keys is now 40 and a wife, mother and celebrated philanthropist. The 15-time Grammy winner continues to pride herself on being a lifelong student of music who stays true to herself and her ideals, all while keeping her faithful instrument close by.

“I am comfortable and confident being exactly who I am,” Keys says. “Before, naturally like we all have, we explore and try to find who we are, when in a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve always been close to who I’m supposed to be, even from the beginning. Now I know for a fact, 100 percent, who I am and why I’m special. And I’m not backing down.” 

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