Before you get your panties in a knot, know that my question is one that comes from worry, not an actual desire for her to not succeed. Why? Because I’m a huge Alicia Keys fan. While I tried to resist her cornrow and beads wearing underneath a fedora steez and her talents as a pianist back when she dropped Songs In A Minor, tracks like “Butterflyz,” “Girlfriend,” “A Woman’s Worth” and more had me hooked on her. Seriously, you can still catch me walking around our office singing the intro to “Troubles” with an emphatic, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, YEAAAAAAA!” If that wasn’t enough, Diary of Alicia Keys was another classic; I was one of the first to have her very awesome Unplugged joint; and As I Am with its epic lead single, “No One,” was something I couldn’t help but play from top to bottom. To me, Alicia Keys is truly one of the few genuinely talented people left in our musical generation, with lyrics that are poetry and not some vulgar ish you could find written on a gas station bathroom wall. But with the state of music now, the state of her brand, and the personal drama that keeps playing out in public, I’m wondering if Keys will still be relevant a few years from now.
And I think that’s why I’m worried about Alicia. Despite the usual shade that has been thrown by some, as a fan, I don’t spend my days turning up my nose at her when her name is brought up, when pictures of her and her happy family are posted on blogs, and when interviews are released where she talks happily about her marriage and her son, enamored by the blessings in her life. But I’ve found that many people do, and that’s because while they might have been a fan of hers, they aren’t a fan of her decision to get involved with Swizz Beatz. Not because he’s all that, but because he was once a married man at the time they got involved with one another–separated or not. I wasn’t too happy when I found out about their relationship, especially when Mashonda spilled a lot of details about their love triangle, but I’m not one of those people who harshly judges a musician by what they do outside of the studio, but rather by what they put out there in the industry for the buying public. Maybe that’s why I can still jam to a Chris Brown track when the right one comes on and only care about what Fantasia is doing when she’s got a new album coming out. But while I might not take her personal life…personally, there are plenty of people who won’t let it go, and for Alicia to still be relevant in today’s industry, she needs as many fans as possible, not detractors looking to remind everyone of something deemed negative.
If you’re wondering why that matters, it has a lot to do not necessarily with sales, but with having a strong brand. With albums no longer selling like they used to and even big names struggling to make it platinum, the brand you build is more important in this day and age than the talent you actually have. Sadly it’s true. Ad campaigns, clothing lines, movie roles, documentaries on your life, it all matters. And when you have a strong brand, you most definitely can have a stronger following. Enough people have to LIKE you, your style and your personality. And if she’s losing fans because of her love life, that’s not a good thing. If she doesn’t have a die hard following like Rihanna’s Navy, Bey’s Beehive and Gaga’s Little Monsters, the future might not be all that bright.
Aside from all that, I can’t help but also worry about her music. After her last release, Element of Freedom (which was led by the dull “Doesn’t Mean Anything” but later saved by the very smooth “Unthinkable”), I was pretty hopeful about what this new album, Girl On Fire, had to offer. And after listening to it, I didn’t find myself amped up about it the same way I had been about her previous efforts, but I don’t hate it either. It’s just…all right. As a coworker of mine (hey Jada!) who is also a big fan (and a bit indifferent about the new album as well) likes to say, Keys has a specific lane that she needs to stay in, but still find ways to reinvent herself so as to not to come off dull. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And honestly, it’s hard for her to jazz things up when a lot of her music comes out with the same storylines: I could have it all, but I’d have nothing without you meets a powerful love that most people can’t fathom and ends with an uplifting ballad about how women rock!). And it doesn’t help when her husband puts Ruff Ryder worthy beats on her new album and expects her voice to soar over them. While there are some gems on this album, especially “Fire We Make” with Maxwell, “Listen To Your Heart,” “Brand New Me,” and “101,” the album as a collective is a bit underwhelming. It’s an overproduced album with so so lyrical content.
Alicia Keys is from a time before social media and the stans behind it ran the world. She’s from the era when albums were selling in the millions in a few weeks and creative Neo-Soul artists were embraced rather than slept on and given the “Who is that again?” treatment. She’s still one of the brightest stars that we have, no doubt, but when I look at her and listen to her nowadays, I can’t help but feel that her relevance is fading. When she performed at the VMAs a few months back she had to bring out everybody from Nicki Minaj to a flippin’ Gabby Douglas to keep the audience from losing interest after a show that had Rihanna jumping around commanding “We Found Love” and Frank Ocean stealing everyone’s ears and hearts with a simple performance of “Thinkin Bout You.” Even after bringing out her high profile guests, it just came off kind of corny. Her new tracks don’t do her voice real justice and spend too much time forcing her to shout and strain rather than croon and capture your attention. Everything she does these days seems a bit too forced, with the edgy haircut and clothes now, to having Swizz Beatz putting together some of her tracks. Even watching her perform “Girl on Fire” while doing her promo tours had me thinking she wasn’t having much fun. Sad to say, but I think many people, myself included sometimes, are losing the interest that captivated everyone years ago and kept us glued to the screens when she would jump on top of her piano or pound on it, passionate about the music she was performing and making. While I’d rather listen to Alicia any day over most of the mess playing on the radio now, I definitely would pick the old Alicia over this new one any day. So can this new Alicia Keys we see and read about actually stay on top?