20 Years of ‘Songs in A Minor’

20 Years of ‘Songs in A Minor’

Today in 2001, Alicia Keys released her debut album, Songs in A Minor. Before we go any further, we must acknowledge the superb double entendre in the title. It references a piano key, but also, Alicia was only 14 years old — a minor — when she started writing songs that would eventually become tracks on this album.

The industry hadn’t seen a mainstream R&B instrumentalist for decades, and in 2001, we were living in a J.Lo world, which is to say that R&B had moved away from the big vocalists that reigned in the ’90s. While Alicia isn’t necessarily a big vocalist, she was decidedly different in an era dominated by sexpots.

Alicia’s splashy debut — though impressive — had the benefit of Clive Davis leaning into her promotional campaign. The industry titan personally wrote Oprah Winfrey a letter to have Alicia appear on her show. He also reportedly made phone calls to other major shows and media outlets to secure appearances for his new artist ahead of her album release. With that kind of weight behind you, you simply can’t lose. And if you ever doubted the impact of his concerted effort, I’d like to point out that “Fallin’” — the album’s official first single — didn’t even crack the Billboard Hot 100 until June 16, 2001, almost two weeks after its parent album dropped and more than two months after  it was released.

While one could argue that Alicia got a bit of an unfair advantage, no one can deny that she made a solid album. Songs in A Minor was a traditional R&B affair with just enough hip-hop sensibilities to make it contemporary. The album definitely skews toward piano-driven ballads, but every now and then, Alicia gave us something to bounce to like “Jane Doe” (co-written, co-produced and featuring an uncredited Kandi Burris).

In many ways, Alicia Keys plays very directly to the preferences of the critics. She has the quintessential singer-songwriter aesthetic — you know, because you have to perform with an instrument to write songs (sorry, Mariah). And with her relatively “modest” presentation in the midst of Britney- and J.Lo-mania, the Recording Academy couldn’t wait to give her all of the awards. She would go on to win five Grammys — including Best New Artist and Song of the Year for “Fallin’” — at the 2002 Grammy Awards, tying the record at the time (set by Lauryn Hill three years prior).

With over 12 million copies sold worldwide, Songs in A Minor was also a commercial success. And while it’s tempting to point out all of the establishment support it got, the fact of the matter is that it is an excellent album from a talented artist who has gone on to recreate that same magic many times over.

Favorite track: “Mr. Man” (with Jimmy Cozier)

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