Expanded 10th anniversary edition of a modern soul classic.
Lloyd Bradley 2011
Three discs, one of which is a DVD; swish silver cut-out, fold-out packaging; sleevenotes by Quincy Jones; and track annotation by the singer herself. This is an extravagant package that works beautifully on two levels, either as the perfect complement to the original album – included here, obviously – or as the very best place to start. And this is because it digs fairly deep into who Alicia Keys is and what she was about when she made this stunning debut, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The extensive booklet opens with the singer’s simple but impassioned mission statement about New York – very much part of the sleeve design – and how the city’s streets fused with her classical training to allow the then-teenager to express herself so vividly. She then goes on to talk each track with an enthusiasm for every aspect of the process.
The specially-made documentary tells her story up to Songs in A Minor’s claiming of five trophies at the 2002 Grammy Awards, setting itself against dramatic New York footage and making room for entertaining comments from people who worked with her. Keys herself is funny, charming and remarkably candid. She talks forthrightly about the battles with her first label, Columbia – they trashed this album, and wanted her to turn her into a standard RnB bunny; she refused, they wouldn’t let her leave, and it almost crushed her. She’s equally open in her delight and obvious surprise at the album’s success. Most of all, though, what is shown proves how dedicated Keys is to making music.
Disc two collects together alternate mixes of tunes like A Woman’s Worth (a tastefully inventive vintage hip hop version, featuring Nas) and the sparser Butterflyz as it was heard in the 2002 film Drumline; elsewhere, three live recordings from a Seattle show display her accomplished musicianship and easy way with an audience. What makes the disc really special, however, is the previously unreleased Ghettoman, a moody, edgy inner city lament made eerily beautiful by a jangling piano. It’s a blaxploitation theme looking for a film, and why it never made the album is anybody’s guess.
Oh yes, the original album – it still stands strong 10 years later, as a masterpiece of contemporary soul songwriting and arrangement. It continued a bloodline from Etta James, Gladys Knight, Aretha, Esther Phillips and Roberta Flack into the hip hop age, and was ultimately made possible by Keys’ astonishing musical sensibilities.