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.”
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.”
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.”
It’s half past seven, the morning after the show. The streets of London are quiet at this hour. Top-hatted doormen await their first visitors of the day as cops with machine guns stroll in front of royal embassies. Inside a nondescript townhouse, Egypt Daoud Ibarr Dean slumbers peacefully as his mom prepares to head off to a video shoot for her single “Girl on Fire.” His dad’s across the pond at the moment, where he’ll soon be spinning a DJ set in New York with Jermaine Dupri and AraabMuzik. A truck pulls up outside Alicia’s window and empties a dumpster full of bottles from a nearby restaurant, but Egypt sleeps right through it. He’s a born New Yorker.
You stay outta the doghouse by not being a dog. You know what to do. That’s it. Life is real easy. You know what the key is? Honesty.
Alicia’s head of security and a driver wait outside in a black Mercedes minivan. Finally she steps out dressed in black with dark glasses. The minivan sets off for Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, half an hour north of London proper—the studio where George Lucas shot part of The Empire Strikes Back.
During the drive she talks about music in a soft voice. Alicia’s been listening to Frank Ocean lately. She appreciates his songwriting—he cowrote “One Thing” on her new album—and admires the courage of the open letter he wrote about his sexuality. “That was super brave and I’m so glad that he wrote it,” she says. “He is the voice for so many people. We’re all boxed in to these stupid things that we’re taught is the way we’re supposed to be and it’s so ridiculous. There are so many people that need a champion to assure them that no matter who you are, you are a beautiful person. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re talented or intelligent. Thank God that we have come to this place where we can actually know and be more open to the fact that people come in all different ways. And that’s great because it’s a very boring world otherwise.”
Despite its combustible title, the “Girl on Fire” video will require no pyrotechnics or special effects wizardry. “It’s been tricky to really nail,” she says. “Because the song is so damn big, your instinct is to do some crazy, ridiculous big shit. But that’s so obvious. You could do crazy lights and fire at the top of a building, like, ‘Oh my gosh! She’s on fire!’ But to be so literal is cliché.” Director Sophie Muller proposed a different approach: showing Alicia doing everyday activities—being a mom, paying bills, cooking dinner. “That grounded every-day-ness is the shit that makes it firey,” Alicia says.
After an egg-white-and-veggie omelet, Alicia settles into the glam room where Gilberto Gil booms from her iPod dock. There’s a Frida Kahlo book nearby for inspiration. Her assistant, Jen, lights another stick of surya rose incense, then gets back to checking Alicia’s sent mail folder to ensure that all the invitations have gone out for this year’s Black Ball, Alicia’s ninth annual fundraiser for Keep a Child Alive, which provides meds for the children of AIDS patients in Africa and India. Beyoncé is performing this year, and Oprah’s an honoree.
“Did Tyra get hers?” Alicia asks. “And don’t forget Clive. Make sure he knows I want him to sit at my table. What about Will and Jada? Wait, never mind. I just need to text Jada.”
While clouds of hairspray billow around her head and another stylist sits on the floor giving her a pedicure, Alicia studies her white iPhone and dictates emails to her assistant. “Make it read, ‘Can you believe this lineup? It’s going to be amazing. I hope you can be there with us,’” Alicia tells Jen. “‘Thank you for always showing love—smiley face.’”
Alicia says she likes Complex. “I got sneakers for you,” she adds, speaking of her collaboration with Reebok Classics, where Swizz serves as a creative director. “That’s me doing me and him doing him,” she clarifies. But before she can outline the vision for her sneaker designs, Alicia bursts out laughing. The wardrobe stylist has slipped her top on backward. “He’s putting the damn shirt on me wrong,” she says. “And it’s mad tight.” Someone points out that wearing clothes backward worked for Kriss Kross. “’Cause it’s wiggedy wiggedy wack,” Alicia adds and now the whole room is laughing. Just then Sophie Muller bursts in asking, “Are you ready yet?” with mock severity. She soon takes a seat on the couch and begins flipping through a fashion mag, but Alicia wants to keep talking about Complex.
What do Complex readers want to know? Considering the amount of R&B songs in which ladies are mad at the guys in their life, can she offer some advice on how to stay out of the proverbial doghouse?
“It’s real easy,” she says. “You stay outta the doghouse by not being a dog. You know what to do. That’s it. Life is real easy. You know what the key is? Honesty.”
But in what world is honesty easy? “OK, honesty isn’t easy,” she admits. “Honesty can be hurtful. It can be painful. It can be difficult. But honesty makes things easier. ’Cause then you don’t have to go back and do all types of other bullshit. It’s just better. Trust me.”
ADDITIONAL CREDITS: (STYLING) June Ambrose. (SET DESIGN) Rob Strauss. (HAIR) Italo Gregorio. (MAKEUP) Ayako Yoshimura. (CLOTHING) OPENING SPREAD: Top by All Saints / Earrings by Wouters & Hendrix. FOLLOWING SPREAD: Cardigan by Plein Sud / Bra by Natori / Earrings by Wouters & Hendrix. PREVIOUS SPREAD: Top by Wolford / Earrings by Wouters & Hendrix.