ALICIA KEYS: As I Am (Label: J Records)


Back in 2003, this Big Apple-born singer and pianist made both a creative and commercial quantum leap with her sophomore album, ‘The Diary Of Alicia Keys,’ which featured the stunning self-penned gem, ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ – to my mind the best soul song written in the last ten years – and the addictive retro-groove, ‘You Don’t Know My Name.’ Up to that point, Keys was just another aspiring R&B starlet with a promising debut to her name (‘Songs In The Key Of A Minor’). Even though ‘The Diary Of Alicia Keys’ catapulted the young songstress into the R&B stratosphere inhabited by the likes of Mary J Blige and Whitney Houston, the singer was brought down to earth with the disappointing sales of the stop-gap follow-up, ‘Alicia Keys Unplugged’ in 2005. Four years on from her last studio effort, Keys is back with a new opus that has received a fairly mixed response by both the punters and pundits so far. I have to confess that on my first listen, I was profoundly disappointed – there’s nothing here that remotely reaches the Olympian heights of ‘If I Ain’t Got You.’ Having said that, with repeated plays my reservations were brushed aside – the album turns out to be a real grower and much more consistent in terms of quality than its predecessor. The arrangements are sparser this time around, with Keys’ piano mostly accompanied by bass, drums and occasional guitar. Following a short, classical-tinged overture, the album proper opens with the boisterous beat ballad, ‘Go Ahead.’ Even better is the mid-paced, ‘Superwoman’ – not the ’70s Stevie Wonder song – which makes way for the single, ‘No One,’ which is tough, brash and infectious (though its big, anthemic chorus is somewhat overcooked at the end by Keys’ excessively declamatory vocals). By contrast, the dreamy soul ballad, ‘Like You’ll Never See Me Again,’ is beautiful and delicate. The gorgeous, mid-tempo ‘Lesson Learned’ featuring John Mayer also seduces the ear, as does ‘Teenage Love Affair,’ which is vaguely reminiscent of 2003’s ‘You Don’t Know My Name.’ Another couple of engaging, soul-drenched ballads, ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ and ‘Tell Me Something (Nana’s Reprise)’ can be found towards the end of the album, rounding out what is a significant release from a prodigious talent.
(CW) 4/5