By mixing R&B with a sultry dose of neo-soul, Alicia Keys became an international star in 2001 with the release of her debut album. Songs in A Minor sold more than 50,000 copies during its first day of availability and eventually moved over ten million units worldwide, thus setting the stage for the 20-year-old’s long career. Although she shared the charts with R&B contemporaries like Destiny’s Child, Keys‘ talent distinguished her as a different sort of diva, one who played a variety of instruments and penned the majority of her songs without outside help. The Diary of Alicia Keys cemented her popularity two years later, and Alicia Keys spent the rest of the decade refining her now-signature sound.
Alicia Augello Cook was born in Harlem in early 1981. Raised by her Italian-American mother, she enrolled in classical piano lessons at the age of seven and began writing songs four years later. An education at the Professional Performance Arts School helped develop her vocal skills, and Alicia graduated at the age of 16 as the class valedictorian. Two Columbias loomed on the immediate horizon: Columbia University and Columbia Records, both of whom had extended offers to the talented student/musician. Although she attempted to make both options work, Alicia found it difficult to juggle the two commitments and chose to focus exclusively on her music career. Assuming the stage name of Alicia Keys, she began working with Columbia and contributed a song to the Men in Black soundtrack, but disputes with the label resulted in her contract’s termination.
Keys bounced back by aligning herself with Clive Davis, the president of Arista Records, but work on her debut album stalled when Davis was ousted from the company in 2000. Davis soon formed his own label, J Records, and welcomed Keys back into the fold with an aggressive publicity campaign (including an influential appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show). Songs in A Minor was then released in June 2001 and debuted at the top of the charts, eventually netting five Grammys and rising to platinum status in ten different countries. Released in 2003, The Diary of Alicia Keys enjoyed similar Grammy-certified success, and Keys released a book of poetry the following year.
A live CD/DVD package, Unplugged, arrived in 2005 and followed Keys‘ two previous releases to the top of the charts, even if it failed to win any of the four Grammys for which it was nominated. She then entered the acting world, starring in both Smokin’ Aces and The Nanny Diaries in 2007, before issuing the pop-influenced As I Am later that year. It became her fourth consecutive number one album, and she was nominated for another handful of Grammys as a result, with “Superwoman” winning the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in early 2009. As the year drew to a close, Keys returned to the top of the Billboard charts with “Empire State of Mind,” a Jay-Z single that featured her vocals, and released her fourth studio album, The Element of Freedom. Although it went platinum, The Element of Freedom didn’t reach number one in the U.S., becoming her first album to miss the top slot. It did reach number one in the U.K., though, marking Keys‘ first chart-topping album in Europe and highlighting her status as a global artist.
During the next two years, Keys married producer Swizz Beatz, gave birth to a son, collaborated with Eve on the single “Speechless,” appeared somewhere in Kanye West‘s “All of the Lights,” and went on a brief tour in celebration of her debut album’s tenth anniversary. She wrote and, with her husband, co-produced “Angel” for Jennifer Hudson‘s I Remember Me. In 2012, she assisted Emeli Sandé (Our Version of Events) and Miguel (Kaleidoscope Dream) prior to releasing Girl on Fire, her fifth studio album. It was issued on RCA — in the wake of J Records’ dissolution — that November and featured collaborations with her husband, as well as Sandé, Salaam Remi, Jeff Bhasker, Frank Ocean, and John Legend. In the U.S., it became her fifth number one album and went gold. VH1 Storytellers, recorded just prior to its release, was issued in June 2013.
By Andrew Leahey & Andy Kellman, Rovi