Although Alicia Keys attained superstar status in 2001 with Songs in A Minor—winning Grammys and adulation from Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones while also selling six million albums—the young singer was determined that her follow-up be just as special. Unafraid of the dreaded “sophomore slump” that’s plagued more than a few artists, the New York-born and raised singer released The Diary of Alicia Keys in December 2003 and, without a doubt, further elevated her status as a major talent.
While The Diary of Alicia Keys, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, features lush soul songs as well as a few classical pianist parts straight outta the conservatory, Keys was also a hardcore rap fan who came of age during the Bad Boy/Death Row era, and wasn’t afraid to add some of that flavor to her own music. Indeed, years before marrying producer Swizz Beatz or working with Jay Z, she’d long been getting her hip-hop on.
“Hip-hop is my life,” Keys told me in 2003. “I grew up listening to [DJs] Red Alert and Mister Cee. So just as much as soul or classical, hip-hop resonates through my music. Just like the blues at its essence, rap is about real life, that’s why I’m so attracted to it. I remember when I was a teenager I went to Madison Square Garden to see Biggie, Wu-Tang and Redman, and I was so affected by the power of that show. I was going crazy.”
Citing Biggie Smalls’s debut as one of her favorite albums of all time, Alicia said, “Raw hip-hop is my favorite. I played Ready to Die so much, I popped three different cassette tapes. And each time I bought another one. In my car right now, I have about four copies of that CD.”
For Diary, the singer recruited various hip-hop producers, including Easy Mo Bee, who constructed most of Ready to Die; Timbaland; and Kanye West, who co-wrote/co-produced the lead single, “You Don’t Know My Name.” Already in steady rotation on the radio and music channels, the video clip featured rapper Mos Def playing Keys’s fantasy love interest. “I like the fact that she’s real with her talent,” Mos Def told me the night of Keys’s star-studded album release party. “She’s very confident without being overbearing or cocky. She is constantly growing as an artist, and she represents New York very well.”
Reppin’ NYC to the fullest, Keys recorded a track called “Streets of New York,” which featured appearances from Nas and Rakim; unfortunately, the track only appeared on British and Japanese editions. “That was historic, having both of them in the studio with me,” Keys said. “I took the piano from Nas’s ‘N.Y. State of Mind,’ and on that track Primo sampled Rakim’s voice saying, ‘New York state of mind.’ So the only way I could do it was to get both of them. I love how that joint sounds.”
As a fan of early Bad Boy recordings, Keys hired producer Easy Mo Bee to work on her hot-buttered remake medley “If I Were Your Woman/Walk on By,” a track that also included bass dramatics of Tony! Toni! Toné! member D’wayne Wiggins. “I had known and respected Easy Mo Bee since I was young, and felt that the production he did with Craig Mack and Biggie was incredible,” she said. “From ‘Flavor in Ya Ear’ to ‘Warning,’ he was the beginning of the Bad Boy sound, so collaborating with him was amazing. We exchanged ideas and visions of the song, and what came out of those sessions was very exciting.”
Easy Mo Bee, perhaps one of the most laid-back figures in hip-hop, told me, “We were in the studio for three days, and I was surprised how deeply she was into beats. I thought she would be on some real soul music vibe, but she loves talking about rap. I was kind of surprised how much she knew about my work.”
As The Diary of Alicia Keys debuted at number one and went on to win a Grammy for Best R&B Album, the then 22-year-old singer won the respect of hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash. “What excites me about Alicia is, when the world is going left, she decides to take a chance and go right,” said the DJ on the night of Key’s release party. “I call her production ‘razor edge songs,’ because they can go either way. Her songs appeal to the masses from early teen to someone 70 years old. As a musician as well as a producer, Alicia Keys is a genius.”
Ten years after the release of The Diary of Alicia Keys, that joint is still fresh.
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.