As it exists today, R&B is inextricably connected to hip-hop music, but it wasn’t always that way. Originally closer to pure rock and roll music at the hands of early greats Little Richard, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, shades of Chuck Berry, and of course the Turners, Ike and Tina, the genre evolved slowly and surely over the years. Rhythm and Blues gave way to Doo Wop, Soul, Funk, and eventually Disco from which early hip-hop derived. Although Disco and Doo Wop aren’t around so much anymore, stylistic aspects of Soul and Funk were carried on by certain artists throughout the ages. R&B, on the other hand, shifted and moved with the times, becoming a kind of symbiotic style that could combine with rock, pop, or hip-hop to great effect (depending on the artist). It seems ridiculous to say that Chuck Berry, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Drake could be adept in the same genre, but here we are. Just after the turn of the century, a talented young woman came along and, whether or not she knew it at the time, was about to claim her spot as the next great R&B singer. Having internalized the stylistic sensibilities of Soul and hip-hop, she was able to combine them together to great effect and, thanks to her stunning voice, craft what was, at the time, modern R&B perfection. That young woman was named Alicia Keys, and today’s addition to the Musical Training Plan was her 2nd studio album. Released in 2003, it’s The Diary of Alicia Keys.
If you’re familiar with this album already and are confused by my insistence that it has hip-hop influences, allow me to explain. No, Alicia does not rap on this album, but there are a couple of key elements outside of rapping that she borrows. The first, and most obvious, can be found in the production of The Diary… which, while mostly done by Keys herself (9 of the 15 tracks on the album giving sole production credit to Keys), she collaborated with an impressive collection of artists when crafting her sophomore effort. Tried and true excellent producers Timbaland, Easy Mo Bee, and Dre & Vidal lend their talents alongside pre-College Dropout Kanye West. Many tracks make use of very hip-hop/rap style drum beats and bass-y instrumentals over which Keys layers her extraordinary vocals. The reason that she can sing over such hip-hoppy instrumentals without creating a stylistic disconnect is that she clearly has a deep understanding of rhythm and meter. Vocally Keys reminds me of Ms. Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé Knowles, 2 artists known to alternate between rapping and singing, and 2 artists with stellar voices. Alongside these 2, Keys became an essential piece in the evolution of R&B into its current form, dominated by the likes of Frank Ocean, The Weekend, and SZA, among others.
Along with the stylistic sensibilities of hip-hop that Keys is so comfortable with, she displays a distinct soulfulness that cannot be taught. The emotional sway and vocalizations that run throughout The Diary… elevate the more soulful tracks to new heights. Keys shows us comfort with a wide vocal range and a confidence in her own abilities as she throws in little vocal flourishes and ad-libs that Otis Redding would have been proud of. The commanding power of her voice never fails to impress but, more importantly, it’s just really fun to listen to.
Alicia Keys was, and is, a supremely talented singer-songwriter. It is rare that somebody with such ability takes on the responsibility of writing, producing and performing, but Keys took on the challenge and earned a #1 album for her efforts. An important person in the history of popular R&B music, an artist whose work is still a delight nearly 20 years after its release, and a multitalented inspiration to artists all over the world, I can’t help but have colossal amounts of respect for Alicia Keys.