It's been a minute, but Alicia Keys is back in the spotlight. Mature and demure, Scarlett's new bosom buddy (holla!) gets her grown & sexy on.
This feature originally appeared in Complex's October 2007 issue.
The road towards her recent projects—the soon-to-be-released third album, As I Am1, and the late-summer flick The Nanny Diaries with Scarlett Johansson2—hasn’t been all gravy, though. She’s still the strikingly beautiful chanteuse who blew up the popscape, but the 27-year-old native New Yorker speaks of harder days past with measured, mellow tones. (If you ever need a second career, ma, we suggest phone sex.) Two years on the road, a burgeoning acting career that began with an impressive femme-fatale role in the otherwise overly indulgent Smokin’ Aces, and some vaguely alluded-to “personal issues” all added up to Ms. Keys needing a breather. Badly.
We have to say, though, that she doesn’t seem all that vulnerable in person. She just seems happy, and as smokin’ as her film debut (thank you, Aces costume designer). Ms. Keys sat with Complex to discuss personal drama, how far she’s come as an actress since rolling with Heathcliff Huxtable3, and setting the record straight about her business partner Kerry “don’t call him my boyfriend4” Brothers. And we ended up fallin’ all over again.
I know you intended to take some time off between albums. What’s been your focus the past few years?
We toured for two years, ’til 2006. I came home and I did the film [Smokin’ Aces], I went on my pilgrimage to Africa right after that, and then had some family things come up. And then boom, now it’s 2007.
When you started the recording process, what were your initial ambitions with it?
I was already hearing very different melodies and musical progressions. It kind of scared me a little bit because the things I was writing were reflecting my mood and I wasn’t in a very good headspace. I was extremely worried—a lot—very tense, and just began being judgmental of myself.
You know, when you’re not in a good space, you’re kind of extra hard on yourself about things that are unnecessary. So on top of whatever I was dealing with, I was creating more hardship because I was being so judgmental about everything. And it was obviously time for me to take some time to figure out what the fuck was going on with me.
I’m usually so solid—I’m not the chick that breaks down, I’m not the one who loses it and wilds out, that’s not my thing. I was trying to hold in these emotions, so as to not trigger any type of unusual behavior. But it was inevitable. It just came to the point where even people who I’m so good at hiding from—
I’m not the chick that breaks down, I’m not the one who loses it and wilds out, that’s not my thing.
Yeah, they were like, “Something’s not right with you.” And I was pretty crazy.
What kinds of stresses were you going through?
When you’re planning a schedule for an album, you’re planning things a year and a half in advance, and saying yes to things a year and a half in advance. And when I confirmed to do [Smokin’ Aces], the smart thing would have been, “I can do that, but I gotta have at least a week off, just so I can kind of get my head together.” That’s not what I did.
After all that, though, the end result is a hot album. You worked with John Mayer—
That boy is so talented, man. We actually got a chance to get to know each other a little before getting to work together. It was more of a friendship, as opposed to, like, “OK, we’re just gonna write out of the blue.” And it just flowed easy. I love the song [“Lesson Learned”].
And you also worked with Linda Perry?
I did work with Linda Perry, which was crazy—it’s rare that I collaborate with people, because I feel too vulnerable collaborating with people—
From the standpoint that you want it to be your vision, your—
Vulnerable from the standpoint that I’m opening my soul right there. That’s why I tend to not collaborate so much. But this time, after I realized that I was damn near on the verge of my first breakdown, and I realized I needed to get the hell out of town and clear my head, I went to Egypt.
Oh, word. How was it?
It was such a miraculous experience for me. I looked at the Great Pyramids and I almost broke down. It showed me so much about myself and the way that we can build anything from nothing, and it can be something that lasts thousands of years. I crawled to the top of the pyramid and I just sang at the top of my lungs right there. People walking in acted like I was crazy; I didn’t care, it was just so poignant for me. And when I came home, I wanted to abandon all that stuff about me feeling too vulnerable to collaborate with people. Forget that.
Looking into what’s been going on with you recently, there’s just not much on the gossip tip. Which is disappointing on one hand, but admirable on the other. How do you avoid all that?
I got the script, I read 30 pages, and I threw it in the trash.
If I’m in L.A. and I go to Mr. Chow’s, yeah, I’m gonna have my picture taken and it’s gonna be somewhere. But if I’m in L.A. and I go to this spot on the corner of wherever the hell, that nobody even knows about, I’m gonna have a wonderful dinner, and I’ma go home, and I’m chillin’. It’s a bunch of choices of where you want to be.
You’re sitting here telling me that you felt like you were on the verge of a breakdown, but anybody hears “Alicia Keys on the verge of a breakdown” and it becomes this big deal. Somehow, you just take care of your business and it slides under the radar.
What kind of life is that to have to be running around and hiding here and there? I’m fortunate not to have that, and I want to keep my lifestyle.
Let’s talk about acting, and your role as assassin Georgia Sykes in Smokin’ Aces. How did that part come about?
Joe [Carnahan], the director, came to my show in Cali and he was like, “Listen, I got this part, and it’s perfect for you. It’s not no soft-ass part, and it’s not some girlfriend, either. It’s someone with substance.” Then he was like, “And she’s an assassin.” I was like, “OK! That’s interesting.” I got the script, I read 30 pages, and I threw it in the trash.
I was like, “There’s like every stereotype ever in there. And what’s this gay shit, too?” So maybe two weeks later, my agent called me and said, “Read it all the way through, you’ll be feeling it.” So I dug it out and I read it. And the more I read, the more that I got it. I was like, “Wow, there’s nothing people will expect from me less than this.” And that’s what I wanted when it came to film. I don’t want to be the singing, piano-playing “girl role.” I want to be something that’s not who I am.
Did you have any reservations or concerns that playing a gay character was going to spawn rumors?
Well, my character wasn’t the gay character, my partner was. But there was kind of a—
There was originally a whole scene where I confronted her about it, and said, “I feel like you’re kind of pushing up on me, what’s going on?” They left that out; they wanted it to be very ambiguous, which is cool. I figured that people would probably run with it, and there was a little misconstruing about it, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t a big deal.
Romantically speaking, what are some of the things that make you feel appreciated?
I like spontaneity. I like to do things just because the thought came in your mind. I like to maybe go to the planetarium, crazy late at night. I love when a dude is cool with going to the museum with me. Especially if it’s an interesting exhibit, I’m not just trying to go see—
I was gonna say something else, but let me not be crass.
I like to discreetly woo.
Crass is good.
I was saying I don’t want to go and just see dead white people.
Oh, OK. [Laughs.]
And you dragged me back into it and now it’s gonna be a damn quote in the magazine! [Laughs.] So I like things that feed your mind. Or a night where we go see flamenco dancing, or hear Arabic singing or something, you know what I mean?
I do. You’ve probably had your moments where you’ve done your own wooing, though.
I like to woo silently, discreetly. I like to discreetly woo.
Now, are you alluding to your boyfriend, Krucial Keys?
No. See, I never talk about my personal relationship, which is why I’m not in the gossip rags. The person who people do think that I am involved with is a gentleman named Krucial, who is my production partner.
So that’s all rumors—
But his name isn’t—everybody calls him Krucial Keys because we have a company together called Krucial Keys, because my name is Keys and his name is Krucial. So there, I’ve diffused all of those issues right there.
Speaking of rumors, someone sent me this news blurb; you can tell me if it’s true. “Akon says one perk of fame is having beautiful women throwing themselves at him. He told Britain’s Nuts magazine, ‘Yeah, that happens all the time. Alicia Keys, Beyoncé; I’m pretty lucky in that respect.’
[Laughing.] What do you think the answer to that question is? It’s very possible that that was misquoted, but in the event someone did say that, that tells you all you need to know.
WATCH ALICIA'S BEHIND-THE-SCENES VIDEOS:
1. John Mayer: The album includes a collabo with Mayer, idol to tweens, octogenarians, and kitty-loving virgins alike. [BACK]
2. Scarlett Johansson: From Jeremy Piven to Scarlett is an upgrade, but we can't see dropping $10 on some nannies. Unless they hug it out...with their husky-ass voices.... Could you, uh excuse us for a moment. [BACK]
3. The Cosby Show: In Season One, Keys (nee Cook) attended Rudy's party and went for a ride on the Cos's knee. No sexual harassment suit. [BACK]
4. Bizzy Bone: In a recent Complex, Bizzy Bone professed his love for Keys saying he would "suck her dry." In unrelated news, Keys has gone into hiding. [BACK]
(STYLING) Wouri Vice for Epiphany Artist Group Inc. (HAIR) Tippi Shorter for Epiphany Artist Group Inc. (MAKEUP) Ashunta Sheriff for Dior/Epiphany Artist Group Inc. FIRST IMAGE: Top by Emporio Armani / jeans by Guess / ring by Stephen Dweck / shoes by Guiseppe Zanotti. SECOND AND NINTH IMAGES: Top by Gianfranco Ferré / Pants by D&G / Ring by Stephen Dweck. THIRD AND FIFTH IMAGES: Top and skirt both by D&G / shoes by Sergio Rossi. FOURTH AND TENTH IMAGES: Top by Emporio Armani / jeans by Guess. SIXTH, SEVENTH, AND EIGHTH IMAGES: Dress by Herve Leger.