Alicia Keys: Fitzroy Barrett/Globe Photos
Caroline Kepnes
March 08, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

Why the best of Alicia Keys is yet to come

Alicia Keys is having her moment. And by all means, let her have it! In an age where most female pop stars are barely able to sing and dance at the same time, it’s a relief to see someone stick to her piano-playing guns and come out on top. Five Grammys can’t be wrong, and neither can a nation of 12-year-olds begging for music lessons as they sing along (off-key) to ”A Woman’s Worth.”

But they can go overboard. Think back to 1999, when Lauryn Hill swept the Grammys with her solo debut, ”The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.” That album was a risky, intelligent work of art made by a woman wise beyond her years. By comparison, Keys’ ”Songs in A Minor” is a memorable, if overproduced, record made by someone who is yet to really come into her own. I wish the awards and the hype would reflect that discrepancy. Though Alicia’s got the potential to do an album where every song packs a free ”Fallin”’ punch, she’s not there yet.

Take a step back and see Alicia-mania in context: Legendary Clive Davis is ousted from the company he founded. He starts up J Records, and unfortunately, the poor guy is pushing LFO. Enter Alicia Keys. She’s certainly got talent, her looks don’t hurt, and her rise to the top seems like a great way to accomplish two tasks: 1) dethrone a certain singer named Spears and recast young women as real musicians; and 2) pay homage to a wronged, righteous mogul and prove that he’s as much of a star-maker as ever. In fact, this may have been the kind of unconscious everything-comes-around mentality that got Grammy voters all Key-ed up.

With Lauryn Hill, the momentum for her success was 100 percent hers. The breakup with the Fugees = the motivation for her solo album. The bitter optimism of dealing with sketchy men = ”Doo Wop (That Thing).” The glory of unexpected career-complicating motherhood = ”Zion.” All those Grammys belonged in Hill’s arms because the music seemed to spring from her own experiences. I’m not saying that Alicia’s heart hasn’t been broken. Case in point: ”Fallin”; ”How Come You Don’t Call Me?”(which is Prince’s, by the way), and ”Caged Bird.” But her album is comparatively less sophisticated and a lot more conventionally age appropriate — not quite over the Hill.

Both Hill and Keys know how to write a song, but only Hill made an album in the old-school sense of the word — a collection of stories that are moving, confrontational, and infectious. Sure, I get shivers when I hear Keys sing ”Fallin’.” But the opening lines on her album — ”Hello, my goodness. I didn’t know I was here” — say it all. Compare that with Hill, who didn’t just know where she was — she knew what she wanted to do with her music and, controversially, she knew who she wanted to listen to it.

Does every great album need that epic quality? Of course not. I love early Madonna as much as the next gal who wore out her ”Like a Virgin” tape. But Madonna’s big award-show moment involved gyrating in a white dress and took place on MTV. Alicia Keys, for me, is poised on this murky middle ground between charismatic stardom and earthy talent. When Lauryn Hill was Grammy-fied, it seemed to be purely for her artistic achievement. But at this early stage in Keys’ career, her success seems more dependent on timing and luck.

Lauryn Hill still hasn’t managed to release another record, but the delay makes sense when you think about how much she accomplished with ”Miseducation.” What’s more, glory can be tough on these Grammy gals. By the time Alicia won the Song of the Year award, she said it herself: ”I’m all out of words.” Without reading too much into her speech, I hope that the critics and the teen magazines can cool it a bit, giving her a chance to prove herself and live up to all the premature praise. If that happens, she’s got a much better shot at her own ”Miseducation.” For once, we’ve got a Best New Artist who can certainly get better. Let’s watch, and listen, as it happens.

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