Nobody can deny the beauty or talent of Alicia Keys. The dig on her has always been that she’s somehow not real enough. After all, who appears on The Cosby Show at age 4, then emerges as a musical prodigy and graduates from Professional Performing Arts School as valedictorian at age 16? Who signs to Columbia Records and gets accepted to Columbia University simultaneously, then drops out of both to sign with Clive Davis, the record exec behind Aretha, Whitney, and Janis Joplin? Alicia Keys, that’s who. Little Miss Perfect’s debut, Songs in A Minor, debuted at No. 1, sold 12 million copies worldwide, and went on to be nominated for seven Grammy Awards—winning her Best New Artist, Best R&B Album, Best R&B Song, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Song of the Year. The pattern continued on her subsequent albums: The Diary of Alicia Keys (which samples both Brahms and Nas), As I Am, and The Element of Freedom. Alicia was so enormously gifted that it seemed all too easy to roll out the empowerment anthems, rack up more smash hits, snatch up another armload of Grammys, and keep it moving.

It wasn’t just her massive success that bothered some listeners, but the fact that Alicia didn’t mine her personal life for material in the way that, say, Mary J. Blige or Lauryn Hill did. Of course there is such a thing as over-sharing. Lauryn put so much of her personal business out there on her solo debut that she never released another studio album. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hillis a masterpiece. It made her the first woman to win five Grammys in a single night. The second? Alicia Keys. But that fearlessly unfiltered album left L-Boogie too exposed, not unlike Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, melted the wings he’d fashioned from feathers and wax, and plunged into the sea.


The whole freaking world is looking at your [stuff]. It’s scary. I didn’t want to say every single thing because you don’t want people to know that. There’s personal and there’s public, and I deserve the right to have a personal space.


Having spent most of her 31 years in show business, Alicia is understandably guarded. “I mean, what the hell?” she says of the whole art-imitating-life thing. “The whole freaking world is looking at your shit. It’s scary. I didn’t want to say every single thing because you don’t want people to know that. There’s personal and there’s public, and I deserve the right to have a personal space.”

And yet, she’s opening up more on this album than ever before. Part of that may be because so much of her business has already been aired out. It’s no surprise that she has much to get off her chest with Girl on Fire, her first release as a married woman and mother. She announced the project in August via an open letter on her website. “Before making this record, in some ways I felt like a lion locked in a cage,” she wrote. “I felt like a girl misunderstood that no one really knew. I felt like it was time to stop making excuses for any part of my life that I wanted to change. Once I made that choice I became a girl on fire, the lion broke free!”

It is strange to think of Alicia Keys feeling caged; she’s always appeared to be in charge. “That is the trick, that’s the illusion,” she says. “I was recording since I was 15. By the time the record came out, I was 19. And since then, it’s been on.” She laughs, then repeats herself, quieter this time. “It’s been on.”

“Because I started so young, so much of my life has been like catching up to myself—or trying to run underneath myself so I’m not falling. I finally stepped back and was able to look at it all and say ‘Wow.’ No complaints. I’m glad to be where I am and have this life. But it could be different. I don’t want to have the type of life where I’m not living or I’m always working or always fitting into whatever perfect box. I don’t want that type of hectic life. I don’t want people in my life that encourage that in any way. I’m not my old self anymore.

“Becoming my new self, some people didn’t understand me anymore. Some people who I knew for years—we couldn’t be on the same page anymore. That’s OK because that’s part of growing, too. The hardest thing is to trust yourself, to know that what you’re feeling is valid. A lot of times we dismiss our feelings. I realized that I can trust myself and say, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with that.’ That was the toughest part. When I finally had the bravery to do that, that’s when I started to feel on fire.”

So why now? “Motherhood was a big part of me breaking free. Before I gave birth to Egypt, there was a certain energy of wanting to fix things. Women want to clean stuff up before the baby comes. I refused to be in any circumstance that would give negative energy to this. That was what pushed me over the edge. It was becoming a woman. I was a girl, and now I’m a woman.”

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