November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Will someone please give Alicia Keys a day off? As if playing a monumental gig at the Great Wall of China and selling more than 3 million copies of her sophomore CD, The Diary of Alicia Keys, weren’t enough this year, the 23-year-old R&B powerhouse now has designs on becoming the next Maya Angelou. Her first foray into literature, the poetry-and-lyrics collection Tears for Water, is out Nov. 8. Oh, and did we mention she’s been hogging the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s pop singles chart with her Usher duet ”My Boo”? Scary!

How did that Usher track come about? I’ve known him since we were, like, 14 or 15. It was kinda difficult to do because we were both [working] in different countries all the time. We had to speak a lot on the phone. After I did my vocals I had to e-mail them to him.

So you did the song with Usher, and you’ve performed with Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. Who else do you want to make music with? I’d love to be put in a room with Prince. I would love to be put in a room with Lauryn Hill, with Gwen Stefani, with the Rolling Stones. Oh, and Queens of the Stone Age — they’re crazy.

There’s a political edge in some of your poetry. Will we start seeing that in your music? I think the poetry allows me even more freedom. I’ve definitely been on the verge of being political, but with [my music], for whatever reason, it’s only seeped through slightly. I think it will increase as I grow.

In the poem ”No Room for Religion,” you lament an emptiness in our culture. As much of a ”free society” as we are, we are much more censored than ever before, and worse than the ’60s and ’70s, when we may have been censored but stepped out against it. Now it’s like we’re censored and don’t even search to find a way to say how we really feel. Except maybe Michael Moore.

Tell us about the movie project you’re attached to — about piano prodigy Philippa Schuyler. Oh, my God, I’m thrilled. It’s funny because the whole time people would approach me about roles, I would always say, ”I do not want to play a version of myself.” So fast-forward three years and this part comes along about this woman who’s from Harlem, like I am. And who’s half black and half white, like I am. And who’s a classical pianist, like I am. Suddenly it just felt so right. Also it’s a period piece. I’m a sucker for that.

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