The forerunner of Norah Jones and Brit-soul princess Joss Stone, Alicia Keys now has her place in history: She was the first in a wave of anti-teen-pop acts who were pointedly marketed as people who could sing and, in some cases, play and write songs. No choreographers or headset mics for them! The pitch was truthful and astute, perfectly attuned to growing skepticism toward the Britneys of the world. But the New Authentics also came across as suspicious of pop — and its attendant fun — and unintentionally raised a vital question: Where exactly is the dividing line between integrity and dullness?
Keys’ first CD, 2001’s ”Songs in A Minor,” bobbed back and forth between these two qualities. For all her chops, the disc’s supper-club hip-hop wasn’t very exciting. As if recognizing the need to shake things up, ”The Diary of Alicia Keys” kicks off with some of Keys’ liveliest music. ”Karma” sets her disgruntled romantic complaints to stormy violins and thumping beats; ”Heartburn,” coproduced by Keys and Timbaland, eschews the latter’s robot-aerobics rhythms for minimalist drums and a call-and-response disco chorus straight out of Studio 54. The braided one also ably remakes Gladys Knight’s ’70s hit ”If I Were Your Woman,” albeit replacing ”were” with ”was” in a silly bid at boosting Keys’ street cred.
But like a jogger who quickly runs out of steam early in a run, Keys and her ”Diary” soon begin to slow down. The album drifts into a narcotized semi-slumber of one earnest, samey retro-soul piano ballad after another. (The jarring exception is the sinewy ”Dragon Days,” which recalls the coiled energy of vintage Bill Withers hits.) Given Keys’ simmering voice and evident instrumental skills — and the encouraging fact that she’s showing off less in each area than she did on her debut — the results are all the more frustrating. The album’s first half is proof enough that tasteful doesn’t have to mean inert.