On ''Girlfriend,'' one of her earliest singles, Alicia Keys blatantly ripped off Ol' Dirty Bastard's rowdy street anthem from 1995, ''Brooklyn Zoo'' right down to the unladylike line ''It's enough to make a n---- go crazy.'' By contrast, track 11 on her third effort, As I Am, subtly borrows the organ riff from Wendy Rene's 1964 song ''After Laughter (Comes Tears)'' the exact cut sampled by the Wu-Tang Clan for ''Tearz,'' track 11 of 1993's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Keys may always harbor a fondness for Wu-Tang, but as she's ascended from R&B upstart to actress-spokesmodel-music diva, all of her varied sensibilities rap, soul, classical have folded into a tidier, pop package. The result is Keys' most polished if, at times, edgeless album to date.
''Teenage Love Affair'' and ''Wreckless Love,'' both paeans to the impetuousness of youth, boast heavy hip-hop beats but are slick and radio-friendly. While the former is almost too wholesome, with Keys singing over a Motown-reminiscent groove about balking at third base, the latter finds her waxing coquettish as opposed to childish to shuffling percussion and playful horn stabs. ''I Need You,'' meanwhile, deftly balances urgent D.C. go-go funk with supple, catchy guitar. It's only later in the tune that the piano quietly picks up, a further sign of Keys' morphing ways.
Though her native instrument is ever-present on As I Am, she no longer seems as hell-bent on flaunting her virtuosity as she did on previous albums. Instead, simple melodies prevail, as on ''Like You'll Never See Me Again,'' a pretty ballad that evokes Prince noodling on a toy piano. Adopting an unusually high, breathy delivery, Keys successfully pulls off pap like ''I don't want to forget the present is a gift.''
As I Am overflows with such clichés, many courtesy of Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera, Pink), who co-wrote three songs with Keys. ''Sure Looks Good to Me'' includes this trite barrage: ''Don't rain/On my parade/Life's too short/To waste one day/I'm gonna risk it all.'' But despite Perry's penchant for bland mantras, her American Idol-ready songs best showcase Keys' husky range and position her in a mainstream light. In particular, ''The Thing About Love'' begins as a melancholy R&B lament and rolls into pure pop-rock uplift, with Keys belting, ''It's time for me to shine.'' Songs like this and the empowering ''Superwoman'' have more than a pinch of Aguilera's Perry-penned chart-topper ''Beautiful'' in their DNA. So, understandably, there's less room for ODB. B
DOWNLOAD THIS: ''I Need You''