When it comes to describing pop artists, few adjectival phrases are as off-putting as “classically trained,” especially when it’s used repeatedly in the course of a five-year PR buildup for a teen prodigy. But classically trained Alicia Keys’ long-awaited debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” is neither as annoyingly precocious nor overburdened by technique as one might expect. Her occasional teasing contributions to movie soundtracks (“Men in Black,” “Shaft”) have shown that the 20-year-old singer-songwriter knows what makes for good R&B radio.
Her handlers have tried to sell her as a throwback to classic soul, which means she joins an already overcrowded field of neotraditionalists that includes Erykah Badu, Angie Stone and Jill Scott. But what I hear, especially on those songs where Keys’ strong piano playing is featured, is the kind of Top 40 gospel-pop pioneered by the late Laura Nyro, a classically trained teen prodigy from a different age.
Nyro, however, would never have set a self-introduction to a Beethoven melody, which says less about the two women’s personal sensibilities than it does about their respective musical landscapes. Nyro was made by doo-wop; Keys hip-hop. In fact, if “Piano & I,” the aforementioned Beethoven rip, has uses beyond the merely introductory, it’s that it allows Keys to address the preconceptions that everyone has formed about her technique and influences. “I’m feeling a little more prepared for the world,” she asserts, and then launches into the first real song on the album, “Girlfriend,” blowing those preconceptions to hell in the process.
Up until the album’s centerpiece, a quiet-storm ballad produced by Brian McKnight, she delivers one stunner after another. There’s a spare, intense version of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me”; a gospel pumper called “Fallin’ “; the silky vocal pyrotechnics of “Troubles”; and the soaring, single-ready “Rock Wit U,” which should send the King of Pop back to La-La Land where he belongs.
What’s doubly impressive is that Keys produced these tracks herself and that they display the kind of taste and restraint that is rare in current mainstream R&B, where hit albums are filled with A-list producers trying to out-dazzle one another. That’s why the McKnight cut sounds so conventional and cluttered. “Do you know what she’s worth?” Alicia sings accusingly on “A Woman’s Worth.” I don’t think McKnight really does, which is why she’s right to insist on doing it herself.