If The Diary of Alicia Keys was a skillfully balanced mix of classic and modern, Keys’s third effort, As I Am, finds the singer-songwriter fully embracing bygone R&B. There are no rappers or hype men announcing the arrival of the new Alicia Keys joint. And though the beats are heavy on tracks like the covertly political “Go Ahead,” which displays Keys’s funky low end, whatever sweat she breaks isn’t due to urban club jams but sultry mid-tempo numbers that one can imagine being pumped into hot Harlem nightclubs or humid summer block parties circa 1970. Thematically and tonally, “Teenage Love Affair” is a kissing cousin to “You Don’t Know My Name,” evoking vintage Motown like the Jackson 5 and the Supremes. When the hooks kick in, you might feel like you’ve known these songs for years, and while that could point to the derivativeness of Keys’ songwriting, neo-soul is nothing if not familiar, redolent, and comforting.
Everything that I could say about why the album’s lead single, “No One,” is so good has already been said by my friend and colleague-in-Internet-opining Rich Juzwiak on his blog: the leisurely 4/4 stomp, the way Keys trades her usual acoustic keys for an electric keyboard a la Stevie Wonder, the everything-is-gonna-be-all-right vibe lifted from “No Woman, No Cry,” and her voice, which has the timbre of a harder-edged Sade. She employs this vocal technique, reaching for notes just outside her range, throughout As I Am—she’s always struck me as an over-achiever, after all—and her voice, which is throaty to begin with, sounds strained and tattered on songs like “The Thing About Love,” a fact that only deepens her interpretation of that “thing.” It’s hard to believe that it’s been four whole years since Keys’s last studio album, but in the interim, you know there was some living going on.
Yes, Keys’ songwriting talent is a bit overstated (the corny and trite “Prelude to a Kiss,” the one song written solely by her, exposes her lyrical and musical weaknesses) and her piano playing is often used as a gratuitous crutch, but the goodwill and enthusiasm that has propped Keys up since the day Clive Davis unveiled her in front of an audience of tastemakers like a new monument has inspired and sustained a self-confidence that Simon Cowell might interpret as “the X Factor.” “Even when I’m a mess/I still put on a vest/With an S on my chest,” she sings on “Superwoman,” one of three tracks co-written by Linda Perry. Unlike Lauryn Hill, Keys has been able to harness all of those early endorsements (and the continued acclaim) and push herself to continued excellence rather than crumble under the weight of expectation. Keys isn’t quite a superwoman come to save R&B from itself, but the timeless quality of As I Am is right on time.