Alicia Keys: Unlocking Alicia (2012 Cover Story)

Alicia Keys: Unlocking Alicia (2012 Cover Story)By Rob Kenner (@boomshots); Photography by Gavin Bond; Click Here For Additional Credits.
The grand piano stands alone, center stage, at the Roundhouse, a 19th century railroad shed converted into a theater in Camden, North London. As giant screens count down the seconds till showtime, the crowd at the iTunes Festival is getting excited, if a bit confused. They can see the band on the stand, but where’s Alicia Keys? The girl born Alicia Augello Cook knows her place, and that place is at the keyboard. Why do you think she calls herself Alicia Keys anyway?

A classically trained pianist, she’s one of the most accomplished musicians in the world of pop music, sophisticated enough to rock prestigious venues like the Royal Albert Hall with just herself and 88 keys. But those ivories are not about to be tickled anytime soon. A female silhouette appears, flanked by two male dancers. Then the lights cut on, and a hard-edged instrumental produced by Dr. Dre and Swizz Beatz kicks in.

 

I went to Egypt, and I went alone. I sailed down the Nile and I saw the temples, the tombs, and the pyramids. It was powerful... It was very Cleopatra.

 

There's Alicia, shaking her post-baby body in tight black pants and an open-backed top suspended by sparkly gold chains, her long tresses cropped into a Posh Spice bob. She's up off that piano bench and doing her damnedest to get the crowd of 5000 up, too. “Party people say, Ay,” she roars, triumphant. “It’s a new day.”

The audience doesn’t know quite what to make of all this. They’ve come to see AK—not Bey or RiRi—but they go with it because she’s feeling it. Before long she’s back at the keyboard doing what she does best. She runs through “Karma” and “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart,” one of the sexier songs in her catalog, before she slows it down to the dreamy chords of “Unthinkable (I’m Ready).

“This song is about taking chances,” she explains to the audience in a quiet voice, caressing the keyboard. “This song is about letting go. This song is about asking yourself: ‘What are we waiting for?’” One of the male dancers pops up behind her as she sits at the piano, singing about a long-awaited “moment of honesty.” Alicia and the dancer sit back to back, his movements mirroring hers as if they’re connected on some deep, unconscious level. Suddenly she gets up from the bench, singing, “If we do the unthinkable would it make us look crazy? Or would it be so beautiful?” They approach each other tentatively, then turn away as if ashamed, hiding their faces. Like the song itself, their dance is about the fragility of love, the miracle of finding it, and the leap of faith required to sustain it. “If you ask me, I’m ready,” Alicia sings, then returns to her piano as the other figure vanishes into the shadows.

Many fans read this song, which she co-wrote with Drake—a master of weaving real-life romantic drama into R&B hits—as a page from Alicia’s romance with Swizz. The song was one of the last recorded for The Element of Freedom, which was completed in May 2009, around the same time Swizz first publicly acknowledged their relationship. It was released as a single in May 2010, the same week that Alicia and Swizz announced their engagement and the fact that she was expecting.

They knew the child’s name would be Egypt before they knew he was a boy. “I took an important trip for myself to Egypt,” Alicia recalls. The year was 2006, a time Alicia says was similar to the run-up to this record. “There were a lot of things that needed to change. I was not as experienced then, so I felt close to a breakdown. I went to Egypt, and I went alone. I sailed down the Nile and I saw the temples, the tombs, and the pyramids. It was powerful.” She adds with a laugh, “It was very Cleopatra.”

“When we found out I was pregnant, my husband said, ‘Egypt was such an important time for you. That really changed your life. Wouldn’t that be amazing as a name?’ Once he said that, I was like, ‘Yes.’ ”

Despite the gossip and speculation, Alicia is reluctant to confirm what “Unthinkable” is about. “With songs there’s a part that you can never fully interpret,” she hedges. “Someone could never tell what I meant and I could never interpret what it may mean to someone else.” Still she admits, “everything I write is part of my life. I couldn’t write it if I didn’t relate to it.”

As she continues to speak about “Unthinkable” she finally opens up about its meaning. “Lately I’ve been wanting to explain that song. That song and that moment is about taking chances. It’s about following yourself. We hold back so much. We wait or we don’t do anything just because of all the ways we explain it to ourselves in our head. That’s a big theme for me on many levels—especially during that time. Like I said, I’ve been going through this whole process of finding my own womanhood.”

She says now that on her last album she only had an element of freedom. But that’s not enough anymore. “That was what that song was about,” she admits. “That’s the thing about love—you gotta take a chance.”

Tags: alicia-keys, complex-cover-stories
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