On ”Girlfriend,” one of her earliest singles, Alicia Keys blatantly ripped off Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s rowdy street anthem from 1995, ”Brooklyn Zoo” — right down to the unladylike line ”It’s enough to make a n—- go crazy.” By contrast, track 11 on her third effort, As I Am, subtly borrows the organ riff from Wendy Rene’s 1964 song ”After Laughter (Comes Tears)” — the exact cut sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan for ”Tearz,” track 11 of 1993’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Keys may always harbor a fondness for Wu-Tang, but as she’s ascended from R&B upstart to actress-spokesmodel-music diva, all of her varied sensibilities — rap, soul, classical — have folded into a tidier, pop package. The result is Keys’ most polished — if, at times, edgeless — album to date.
”Teenage Love Affair” and ”Wreckless Love,” both paeans to the impetuousness of youth, boast heavy hip-hop beats but are slick and radio-friendly. While the former is almost too wholesome, with Keys singing over a Motown-reminiscent groove about balking at third base, the latter finds her waxing coquettish — as opposed to childish — to shuffling percussion and playful horn stabs. ”I Need You,” meanwhile, deftly balances urgent D.C. go-go funk with supple, catchy guitar. It’s only later in the tune that the piano quietly picks up, a further sign of Keys’ morphing ways.
Though her native instrument is ever-present on As I Am, she no longer seems as hell-bent on flaunting her virtuosity as she did on previous albums. Instead, simple melodies prevail, as on ”Like You’ll Never See Me Again,” a pretty ballad that evokes Prince noodling on a toy piano. Adopting an unusually high, breathy delivery, Keys successfully pulls off pap like ”I don’t want to forget the present is a gift.”
As I Am overflows with such clichés, many courtesy of Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera, Pink), who co-wrote three songs with Keys. ”Sure Looks Good to Me” includes this trite barrage: ”Don’t rain/On my parade/Life’s too short/To waste one day/I’m gonna risk it all.” But despite Perry’s penchant for bland mantras, her American Idol-ready songs best showcase Keys’ husky range and position her in a mainstream light. In particular, ”The Thing About Love” begins as a melancholy R&B lament and rolls into pure pop-rock uplift, with Keys belting, ”It’s time for me to shine.” Songs like this and the empowering ”Superwoman” have more than a pinch of Aguilera’s Perry-penned chart-topper ”Beautiful” in their DNA. So, understandably, there’s less room for ODB. B
DOWNLOAD THIS: ”I Need You”