One of the greatest talents of her generation opens up about the emotional sparks that ignited her latest album, Girl on Fire.
The first thing you see when the elevator doors open at the Oven recording studios is Alicia Keys’ face, painted floor to ceiling, next to a rendering of the Empire State Building. Her portrait is part of a mural—a kind of musical Mount Rushmore commemorating great New York artists. It’s fitting for a recording studio located on Manhattan’s far west side—not far from the Hell’s Kitchen apartment on 43rd and 10th where Alicia grew up with her mother. To the right are Lennon in his NYC period, Kool Herc, and Jay-Z dressed in his Reasonable Doubt finery. To the left are the O.G.s—Sinatra, Ellington, Gillespie, and Billie Holiday.
Alicia will tell you the mural wasn’t her doing, that it was commissioned by her engineer, Ann Mincieli, with whom she rebuilt the studio over the past couple of years. She doesn’t like to seem immodest. These artists are legendary. Then again, so is she.
When Alicia made her debut at age 19 she talked about how she would study the greats: Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, Nina Simone. “My dream is to be that good someday,” she said in 2001, and she’s still as focused as ever. “I’m competitive with myself in the sense that I want to get better,” she says now. “It’s not that I’m obsessively dissecting myself, but there’s a critique that happens. I am very driven. I’m not comparing myself to other people. I don’t wanna be like her or him. I want to be my best.”
The Oven used to be out in Glen Cove, Long Island. It was established by Alicia and her longtime creative and business partner, Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, with whom she co-founded the Krucial Keys production company. He was an underground hip-hop producer who met her in Washington Square Park in the mid ’90s. “We both liked Wu-Tang; we both liked Stevie Wonder,” he recalls. “So it was like, we connected.” In addition to being close collaborators, it was long assumed that they were romantically involved. Brothers had production credits on all Alicia’s multiplatinum albums, and co-executive produced her most recent, 2009’s The Element of Freedom. But Brothers has since gotten married and begun working with a new artist named Mateo. He wasn’t involved in setting up this new studio, where much of her new album, Girl on Fire, was recorded. “This album she’s done different from the other albums,” he says. “She’s worked with a whole lot of different people this time.”
It’s not a departure. It’s growth. I love the way that I’ve been able to go deeper into my lyrics and my songwriting and go to a place I was too afraid to access before.
Keys is still friendly with Brothers, but there’s a new man in her life. In 2010, Alicia married the producer, artist, and one-man brand Swizz Beatz. They have a 2-year-old son named Egypt, whose impossibly adorable face lights up one wall of Alicia’s new studio, framed in an oversize photographic portrait. But the past few years haven’t been entirely idyllic for her.
In 2009, for the first time in her life, Alicia was on the receiving end of bad publicity. Everyone knows by now that her husband was married to another woman—the R&B singer Mashonda, with whom he had a son—when they first met; a fact for which she makes no apologies. And why should she?
Alicia maintains that she and Swizz did not get involved until he and Mashonda were separated. She was subjected to gossip items and negativity, but Alicia held her tongue and avoided a public back-and-forth. Such are the sparks that can set a girl on fire.
Inside the Oven an assistant engineer cues up selections from Girl on Fire—a version of the title track without Nicki Minaj, and another energetic cut, “New Day”—without 50 and Dre. Then the music shifts gears from slick radio fare to stripped-down songs showcasing the piano and Alicia’s vocals, which sound as raw and vulnerable as any she’s ever recorded.
She believes her new album is her best work yet. “It’s not a departure,” she says. “It’s growth. I love the way that I’ve been able to go deeper into my lyrics and my songwriting and go to a place I was too afraid to access before.”
On “Not Even the King” you can hear her sit down on her piano bench, take a deep breath, and start to sing about how you can’t buy love and trust, about how much it sucks when you “ain’t got a friend who’s not on the payroll.” On “101,” a hair-raising song written with the brilliant British artist Emeli Sandé, Alicia sings about loving a man who’s played 100 girls, her voice so breathy and naked that it’s almost painful to listen to. And then there’s “Tears Always Win,” which is just as wrenching as its title suggests. The standout of the collection is “Brand New Me,” which Alicia calls “the anchor” of the album. It’s a song of catharsis, a telling-somebody-off song that feels like it’s been a long time coming.
“Don’t be mad that I’m different,” Alicia explains about the song. “Don’t be mad that I’m changed. Don’t be mad that I’m grown. You can’t affect me the way you once did. You can’t be mad. Like, how could you be mad?” She won’t say who these remarks are directed to, but she delivers them with gusto.
“My favorite part of that song is the bridge. The bridge says, ‘If you were a friend, you’d want to get to know me again/If you were worth the while, you’d be happy to see me smile/I’m not expectin’ sorry. I’m too busy finding myself.’ All of us have had that type of realization: ‘You don’t control me. You might have at one time, but you don’t anymore.’ I love that song so much. It’s so freaking real.”