Any day now, Alicia Keys will feed the hungry, cure the common cold and win some Grammy Awards. Okay, the first two might be a stretch, but it's a lock that she'll collect more than one trophy on February 27. On the other hand, considering this 21-year-old has been credited with single-handedly stamping out urban music's pervasive sexism merely by releasing the song "A Woman's Worth" on last summer's Songs in A Minor, achieving world peace may not be too far out of reach -- not in the minds of her spinmeisters, anyway.
With years of classical and jazz piano training under her belt, the ability to write compelling lyrics and a worldly personality for one so young, Keys is indeed far ahead of many of her R&B peers who stress choreography first with songs a mere afterthought. Believe it or not, her music could thrive even if there were no such thing as music videos.
On A Minor, Keys mixes '70s-era soul arrangements (there hasn't been this much wah-wah guitar on a record since the Jackie Brown soundtrack) with sparse, Sade-style musings to create a dreamy, emotional landscape. Yet her vocals have more than just a sense of maturity; they can punch and kick with authority. It's as if she really meant her emotive pleasure-to-pain pleas in "Fallin'." And in "A Woman's Worth," she gives her girlfriends a cri de coeur against chauvinist rappers who have a different ho in every area code.
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Back in 1989, a young Swedish-born singer named Neneh Cherry, stepdaughter of jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, made a big splash with her single "Buffalo Stance" and was subsequently hailed as a sensual yet tough woman who could bridge the R&B/hip-hop chasm and be a strong role model. Like Cherry, Keys has the total package: a sense of purpose, sexuality and a strong left hand on the 88s. While Cherry was sidelined by illness and family matters, the future still lies before Keys as ripe and close at hand as a bush full of blackberries.
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Backstage at the Grammys, after the awards are handed out, and when Keys gathers with her girlfriends for hugs and air-kisses all around, we can only imagine what'll go through the minds of her competition: "Dang, girl, when I grow up, I'm gonna be like her."