In a year when pop seemed overly shrill and rock too raw, music fans devoured the neo-soul offerings of 20-year-old Alicia Keys. With its artful arrangements and impressive blend of hip-hop, soul, R&B, classical, and pop, her debut, Songs in A Minor, shot to No. 1 and has so far sold 6 million copies worldwide. But it was Keys’ power as live performer that elevated her above the cavalcade of female artists who take the stage behind smoke and mirrors (and snakes). At the America: A Tribute to Heroes benefit, Keys’ mesmerizing, pared-down rendition of Donny Hathaway’s classic ”Someday We’ll All Be Free” was a standout for the show’s 89 million-plus viewers.

While grateful for the recognition, the singer is quick to refute the myth of immediate gratification. ”People think you’re an overnight success just because this is the first time they’ve seen you,” says Keys, who was raised by her single mom in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. ”It’s just that no one ever sees you when you’re heads-down and working hard in the shadows. They just say, ‘Who’s that? How’d she get here?”’

Well, for starters, she had Clive Davis behind the wheel. The star-making ex-Arista mogul latched on to Keys two years ago as she was poised to leave Columbia Records, and ultimately brought her to his new J Records label with the promise of the creative control that the singer/songwriter/piano virtuoso/producer craved. ”Alicia just has everything you could ask for in an artist, and most important,” says Davis, ”she knows what to do with it.”

Keys had been crafting what would become the single ”Fallin”’ since she was 17. Expecting radio to resist the offbeat tune (which it did), Davis’ team launched an uncanny marketing assault, including a guest shot on Oprah. (”That was the one time I was nervous,” admits Keys. ”I just couldn’t believe I was a part of this show I had watched all the time!”)

She compares the exhilaration of fame to that of a first kiss — but rest assured, this is no fling. ”I’ve always believed in myself,” says Keys. ”My whole thing has always been showing other people my stuff and proving to everybody I could do it. I think this year I did.”