For The Record: Inside Alicia Keys' Masterpiece 'Songs in A Minor' At 20
Five years after Clive Davis signed Alicia Keys to his fledgling J Records label and made her a household name, Bob Dylan shouted her out in a song. "I was thinking 'bout Alicia Keys," he rasped in "Thunder on the Mountain," from his 2006 album Modern Times, rewriting a line from Memphis Minnie's song, "Ma Rainey." "She was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line/I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be."
She didn't go anywhere, Bob: Since her 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, Keys has made a string of critically acclaimed albums and has remained a constant force in music. But Dylan's line—asking about and beseeching her—speaks volumes. The modern-day Bard wrote it after watching the 2002 GRAMMY Awards show, in which he also appeared despite not coming in contact with her. "I said to myself, 'There's nothing about that girl I don't like,'" he later recalled to Rolling Stone.
And if music fans reading this are nodding along with that assessment, Songs in A Minor, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, has a great deal to do with that.
Songs in A Minor, which released June 5, 2001, on Davis' then-new (and now-defunct) label, J Records, is a big part of the reason we all know Keys' name. It had a long and careful gestation, for one thing; she began writing the tunes at the tender age of 14. Rather than being the product of a team of chefs, she was a self-contained, self-actualized artist, intimately involved in everything from the songwriting to the production of tracks like "Girlfriend," "Fallin" and "A Woman's Worth."
The album—an amalgam of R&B, soul, hip-hop, jazz, and half a dozen other genres—paid off in dividends. Songs in A Minor debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. At the 44th GRAMMY Awards in 2002, the album scooped up five GRAMMY wins: Best R&B Album as well as Song Of The Year, Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for Keys' debut single, "Fallin'," with the singer/songwriter taking home the Best New Artist GRAMMY that same year.
However, the success of Songs in A Minor was in no way preordained. Label dysfunction and creative insecurity could have stopped it before it even started.
Songs in A Minor was supposed to release on Columbia Records, who signed her when she was 15. But creative differences stymied that arrangement. "They wanted me, the tomboy from Hell's Kitchen, to become the next teen pop idol," Keys wrote in her 2020 memoir, More Myself: A Journey. After a protracted exit, Keys signed with Davis at Arista Records, and later, J Records. But even with the business side of things tied up, she struggled to form the album in her mind.
The skeleton key, Keys said, turned out to be "Troubles." "That's when the album started comin' together," she told Rolling Stone in 2001. "Finally, I knew how to structure my feelings into something that made sense, something that can translate to people. That was a changing point. My confidence was up, way up."
The partnership between Keys and Davis proved fruitful: These Songs in A Minor braided relationship dysfunction with biracial identity via a unique, genre-catholic sound the world won't soon forget. To partly quote Dylan, wherever you'll be, Keys will be.