Where To Start With... Alicia Keys
Some people are just born to do what they do. As a classically-trained child prodigy who was composing her own songs and had signed her first major label recording contract by the age of just 15, Alicia Keys was marked out early in life as someone who had the potential to be a global star.
Not all child prodigies go on to achieve their potential, of course, and Keys' success certainly wasn't handed to her on a plate. Born to an Italian mother and African-American father in New York's tough Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood, the tenacity and self-reliance she credits with learning from her mother would come in handy early on in her career.
Despite being signed by Columbia Records at such a young age, by then her vision for her own career and musical direction were clear enough to prompt a 'dispute' with her label, and she soon moved on to Arista Records. Once again, however, she found herself in conflict with record company execs who had very different ideas about the path she should take.
Shunning a major label deal while you're still in your mid-teens takes real confidence. Doing it twice, you could argue, takes a touch of madness. Happily, however, Keys eventually found a home at J Records, where her creativity was allowed to bloom – and what a shrewd move it proved to be.
With some 40 million sold and dozens of hits to her name, Alicia Keys stands as one of the most successful female R&B artists in history. Since the arrival of her 2001 debut album Songs in A Minor, the singer has churned out half a dozen studio albums, two live albums, co-written a Bond theme, been a coach on TV talent show The Voice, and become a global ambassador for the HIV/AIDS-fighting charity Keep A Child Alive.
This week Keys returns with her seventh studio album and the follow-up to 2016's full-length offering Here. First announced in January this year, the album – simply titled ALICIA, was originally scheduled to arrive in March but, like everything else, was delayed until this week as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Making its debut in stores today, the new album features 15 new tracks including recent singles 'Show Me Love', 'Underdog' and 'Time Machine', as well as appearances from a list of collaborators and guests that includes Sampha, Jill Scott, Khalid, Swizz Beats and Ryan Tedder, among several others.
You can find the video for Khalid collaboration 'So Done' below – beneath that, we've picked out five key tracks from her career so far to celebrate the new album's arrival...
As debut single releases go, it doesn't get much better than reaching the top of the charts on your first attempt. Her early years might have seen some stalling and shuffling between record labels, but the moment that 'Fallin'' began hitting the airwaves it was game over. A powerful, soulful ballad that provided the perfect showcase for her songwriting abilities, precocious pianist talent and powerful voice, her debut hit was the ideal launchpad for everything that was to come.
'If I Ain't Got You'
We could have picked several tracks from second album The Diary of Alicia Keys, but this old-school, soul-drenched slow jam has the kind of timeless melody that would still be a hit whether it was recorded in the 1960s or this week. Still one of her best.
By the time of her third album As I Am (or fourth if we're counting the intervening Unplugged), Keys had ventured into hip-hop soul territory and of several hits the album yielded it's probably 'No One' that sums up the style of the album more than any other. It also happens to be one of the best-selling singles of all time, shifting in the region of 5.6 million copies.
'Girl on Fire'
Underpinned by a sample of the same Billy Squier drum loop featured in Dizzee Rascal's 'Fix Up Look Sharp', 'Girl on Fire' originally emerged as a single ahead of the release of her fifth album, which takes the same name, but we've opted for the 'Inferno Version' which subsequently appeared on the album itself, stripping things back and adding a verse from Nicki Minaj.
'Empire State of Mind (Part II)'
Although originally released as a collaboration with Jay Z – one that became a gigantic hit for the rapper – we've picked out Keys' own version, featured on her 2009 album The Element of Freedom, as the final choice on our list. Check out this spin-tingling live rendition below to see why...