Alicia Keys’ ‘Songs In A Minor’ Turns 15: Backtracking

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

One of the more under-appreciated yet influential trends in ’90s pop was the neo-soul movement, jump-started by Joi’s The Pendulum Vibe, Groove Theory’s eponymous debut and D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar. The sound would eventually reach its apex later in the decade, with Erykah Badu’s Baduizm and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. The turn of the millennium brought D’Angelo’s Voodoo follow-up, but by then, the teen pop explosion was beginning to dominate the conversation.

Still, there were hints of neo-soul’s staying power, with some new blood in the form of 20-year-old Alicia Augello Cook, better known as Alicia Keys, who released her debut album Songs In A Minor 15 years ago today (June 5). The classically trained pianist experienced her first taste of music success at 16 when she inked a recording deal with Columbia Records. Soon after, she gained admission to Columbia University, but eventually dropped out due to the burgeoning pressures that came from balancing schoolwork and musical ambitions. Likewise, her Columbia deal dissolved, but the New York native soon gained the attention of record executive Clive Davis, who immediately signed her to J Records.

Even then, with the business end of things worked out, Keys started experiencing bouts of writer’s block. Until she had a creative and spiritual breakthrough, which she detailed in a 2001 interview with Rolling Stone:

“I’m on my own and tryin’ to be all grown and still tryin’ to figure it out, and I was confused and all over the place. And I remember goin’ to my mother’s house, because that was where my only real piano was, and I wrote a song that was really a conversation with God. The verses was all things I was feelin’ at the moment, and the chorus was actually him or her answering me. I came back to Harlem and started to work on it. Startin’ with the piano and building up with all the little things I was learning, and it became ‘Troubles.’ That’s when the album started comin’ together. Finally, I knew how to structure my feelings into something that made sense, something that can translate to people. That was a changing point. My confidence was up, way up.”

The final product, Songs In A Minor, was rendered in ornate blends of soul, classical, jazz and hip-hop. Despite Keys’ fondness for toying with various musical genres, one common thread that has flowed throughout her career is her roots as a pianist. This is evident in the album’s opening interlude, a hip-hop leaning piano melody that samples Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” appropriately titled “Piano & I.”

Thematically, her debut largely focuses on the ups and downs of romantic relationships. Perhaps no song on the collection better articulates this notion than lead single “Fallin’.” A gospel-tinged R&B gem dripping with melancholy, it sees Keys lamenting the emotional upheaval that comes with being in a serious relationship: “I keep on fallin’ in and out of love with you / I’ve never loved someone the way that I love you.” It quickly gained a foothold on radio stations across the country and topped the Billboard Hot 100 in August of 2001.

Artists often earn mountains of praise for sounding “wise beyond their years.” In retrospect, it was quite refreshing to hear the 20-year-old Keys sing about themes pertinent to young adulthood — but with such a mature voice.  On “A Woman’s Worth,” the album’s second single, she gives a stern warning to men who take their women for granted: “You will lose if you chose to refuse to put her first / She will if she can find a man who knows her worth.” It peaked at No. 7, properly reinforcing her status as the neo-soul movement’s post-Lauryn Hill torchbearer.

Perhaps the most stunning thing about that debut 15 years later is, despite Keys’ prodigious piano talents, her voice may well be the LP’s most breathtaking instrument. Transitioning from soft to sonorous, Key’s contralto range is only matched by her ability to fluctuate between different moods and mindsets. Throughout the 16 tracks, she evokes an array of emotions, from feisty (“Girlfriend’) to somber (“Troubles”) to accusatory (“How Come You Don’t Call Me”).

Songs In A Minor‘s clever fusion of old school soul, new age R&B and traditional piano chops resonated with critics and fans, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — a slight surprise considering the commercial dominance of the mall pop revival at the time. The album earned five Grammys in 2002, including Best New Artist, fittingly tying Lauryn Hill’s then-record for wins by a female solo artist. As the 2000s wore on, Keys’ predilection towards classic soul slightly waned, but the soulful melodies and arpeggios of her debut album have aged with grace.