Pianist and singer Alicia Keys was discovered by legendary record executive Clive Davis, and became one of the first artists Davis introduced after starting his J Records label. As a result, Keys had the kind of debut aspiring artists dream about: A hot single, "Fallin'," created curiosity, and an appearance on Oprah just before her album's release helped Songs in A Minor enter at the top of the Billboard 200, selling 50,000 copies on the day of its release.
Graced with Hanon Studies–style arpeggios and references to the classical piano repertoire, Songs in A Minor is basic neosoul, situating Keys' resolute, reed-thin voice within taut production environments. Keys wrote nearly half the songs herself, and while some are enchanting, more -- including "Fallin'," which reprises James Brown's "It's a Man's World" -- are relatively transparent rewrites of established hits. As a pianist, Keys is totally convincing; vocally, however, she has some growing to do, as her mechanical performance of Prince's "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore" made clear. Despite a uniformly sexy vibe and whip-smart production on several standout tracks -- the Jackson 5–ish "Heartburn," the torchy "You Don't Know My Name" -- Keys' followup, The Diary of Alicia Keys, didn't quite captivate mainstream listeners the way her debut did. (TOM MOON)