Alicia Augello Cook (born January 25, 1981), better known by her stage name Alicia Keys, is an American recording artist, musician and actress. She was raised by a single mother in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan in New York City. At age seven, Keys began to play classical music on the piano. She attended Professional Performing Arts School and graduated at 16 as valedictorian. She later attended Columbia University before dropping out to pursue her music career. Keys released her debut album with J Records, having had previous record deals first with Columbia and then Arista Records.
Keys’ debut album, Songs in A Minor, was a commercial success, selling over 12 million copies worldwide. She became the best-selling new artist and best-selling R&B artist of 2001. The album earned Keys five Grammy Awards in 2002, including Best New Artist and Song of the Year for “Fallin’“. Her second studio album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, was released in 2003 and was also another success worldwide, selling eight million copies. The album garnered her an additional four Grammy Awards in 2005. Later that year, she released her first live album, Unplugged, which debuted at number one in the United States. She became the first female to have an MTV Unplugged album to debut at number one and the highest since Nirvana in 1994.
Keys made guest appearances on several television series in the following years, beginning with Charmed. She made her film debut in Smokin’ Aces and went on to appear in The Nanny Diaries in 2007. Her third studio album, As I Am, was released in the same year and sold six million copies worldwide, earning Keys an additional three Grammy Awards. The following year, she appeared in The Secret Life of Bees, which earned her a nomination at the NAACP Image Awards. She released her fourth album, The Element of Freedom, in December 2009, which became Keys’ first chart-topping album in the United Kingdom. Throughout her career, Keys has wonnumerous awards and has sold over 30 million albums worldwide. Billboard magazine named her the top R&B artist of the 2000–2009 decade, establishing herself as one of the best-selling artists of her time. In 2010, VH1 included Keys on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
1981–96: Early life
Keys was born Alicia Augello Cook on January 25, 1981, in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan, in New York City, New York. She is the only child of Teresa Augello, a paralegal and part-time actress, and Craig Cook, a flight attendant. Keys’ mother is of Scottish, Irish and Italian descent, and her father is African American; Keys has expressed that she was comfortable with her biracial heritage because she felt she was able to “relate to different cultures”. Her parents separated when she was two and she was subsequently raised by her mother during her formative years in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. In 1985, Keys made an appearance on The Cosby Show at the age of four, where she and a group of girls played the parts of Rudy Huxtable’s sleepover guests in the episode “Slumber Party”. Throughout her childhood, Keys was sent to music and dance classes by her mother. She began playing the piano when she was seven and learned classical music by composers such as Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin.Keys enrolled in the Professional Performing Arts School at the age of 12, where she majored in choir and began writing songs at the age of 14. She graduated in three years as valedictorian at the age of 16.
In 1994 Keys met long-term manager Jeff Robinson after she enrolled in his brother’s after-school program. The following year Robinson introduced Keys to her future A&R at Arista Records, Peter Edge, who later described his first impressions to HitQuarters: “I had never met a young R&B artist with that level of musicianship. So many people were just singing on top of loops and tracks, but she had the ability, not only to be part of hip-hop, but also to go way beyond that.” Edge helped Robinson create a showcase for Keys and also got involved in developing her demo material. He was keen to sign Keys himself but was unable to do so at that time due to being on the verge of leaving his present record company. Keys signed to Columbia Records soon after. At the same time as signing a recording contract with Columbia Records, Keys was accepted into Columbia University. At first, Keys attempted to manage both but after four weeks dropped out of college to pursue her musical career fulltime.
1997–2000: Career beginnings
Keys signed a demo deal with Jermaine Dupri and So So Def Recordings, where she appeared on the label’s Christmas album performing “The Little Drummer Girl”. She also co-wrote and recorded a song entitled “Dah Dee Dah (Sexy Thing)”, which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1997 film, Men in Black. The song was Keys’ first professional recording; however, it was never released as a single and her record contract with Columbia ended after a dispute with the label. Keys was unhappy with the label because her career had stalled during her two years under contract at Columbia due to executive indecision over her direction and major changes within the company. Keys called Clive Davis, who sensed a “special, unique” artist from her performance and signed her to Arista Records, which later disbanded. Keys almost chose Wilde as her stage name until her manager suggested the name Keys after a dream he had. Keys felt that name represented her both as a performer and person. Following Davis to his newly formed J Records label, she recorded the songs “Rock wit U” and “Rear View Mirror”, which were featured on the soundtracks to the films Shaft (2000) and Dr. Dolittle 2 (2001), respectively.
2001–02: Songs in A Minor
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Keys released her first studio album, Songs in A Minor, in June 2001. It debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 236,000 copies in its first week. The album sold over 6.2 million copies in the United States, where it was certified six times Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It went on to sell over 12 million copies worldwide, establishing Keys’ popularity both inside and outside the United States, where she became the best-selling new artist and best-selling R&B artist of 2001. The album’s lead single, “Fallin’“, spent six weeks at number one on the BillboardHot 100. The album’s second single, “A Woman’s Worth“, peaked at number three on the same chart. The following year, the album was reissued asRemixed & Unplugged in A Minor, which included eight remixes and seven unplugged versions of the songs from the original.
Songs in A Minor led Keys to win five awards at the 2002 Grammy Awards: Song of the Year, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Best R&B Song for “Fallin'”, Best New Artist, and Best R&B Album; “Fallin'” was also nominated for Record of the Year. Keys became the second female solo artist to win five Grammy Awards in a single night, following Lauryn Hill at the 41st Grammy Awards. That same year, she collaborated with Christina Aguilera for the latter’s upcoming album Stripped on a song entitled “Impossible”, which Keys wrote, co-produced, and provided with background vocals. During the early 2000s, Keys also made small cameos in television series Charmed and American Dreams.
2003–05: The Diary of Alicia Keys and Unplugged
Keys followed up her debut with The Diary of Alicia Keys, which was released in December 2003. The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling over 618,000 copies its first week of release, becoming the largest first-week sales for a female artist in 2003. It sold 4.4 million copies in the United States and was certified four timesPlatinum by the RIAA. It sold eight million copies worldwide, becoming the sixth biggest-selling album by a female artist and the second biggest-selling album by a female R&B artist. The singles “You Don’t Know My Name” and “If I Ain’t Got You” both reached the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the third single, “Diary“, entered the top ten. The fourth single, “Karma“, was less successful on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 20. “If I Ain’t Got You” became the first single by a female artist to remain on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart for over a year.
Keys won Best R&B Video for “If I Ain’t Got You” at the 2004 MTV Video Music Awards; she performed the song and “Higher Ground” with Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder. Later that year, Keys released her novel Tears for Water: Songbook of Poems and Lyrics, a collection of unreleased poems from her journals and lyrics. The title derived from one of her poems, “Love and Chains” from the line: “I don’t mind drinking my tears for water.” She said the title is the foundation of her writing because “everything I have ever written has stemmed from my tears of joy, of pain, of sorrow, of depression, even of question”. The book sold over US$500,000 and Keys made The New York Times bestseller list in 2005. The following year, she won a second consecutive award for Best R&B Video at the MTV Video Music Awards for the video “Karma”. Keys performed “If I Ain’t Got You” and then joined Jamie Foxx and Quincy Jones in a rendition of “Georgia on My Mind“, the Hoagy Carmichael song made famous by Ray Charles in 1960 at the 2005 Grammy Awards. That evening, she won four Grammy Awards: Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “If I Ain’t Got You”, Best R&B Song for “You Don’t Know My Name”, Best R&B Album for The Diary of Alicia Keys, and Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals” for “My Boo” with Usher.
Keys performed and taped her installment of the MTV Unplugged series in July 2005 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. During this session, Keys added new arrangements to her original songs and performed a few choice covers. The session was released on CD and DVD in October 2005. Simply titled Unplugged, the album debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart with 196,000 units sold in its first week of release. The album sold one million copies in the United States, where it was certified Platinum by the RIAA, and two million copies worldwide. The debut of Keys’ Unplugged was the highest for an MTV Unplugged album since Nirvana‘s 1994 MTV Unplugged in New York and the first Unplugged by a female artist to debut at number one. The album’s first single, “Unbreakable“, peaked at number 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number four on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It remained at number one on the Billboard Hot Adult R&B Airplay for 11 weeks.
Keys opened a recording studio in Long Island, New York, called The Oven Studios, which she co-owns with her production and songwriting partner Kerry “Krucial” Brothers. The studio was designed by renowned studio architect John Storyk of WSDG, designer of Jimi Hendrix‘ Electric Lady Studios. Keys and Brothers are the co-founders of KrucialKeys Enterprises, a production and songwriting team who assisted Keys in creating her albums as well as create music for other artists.
2006–08: Film debut and As I Am
In 2006, Keys won three NAACP Image Awards, including Outstanding Female Artist and Outstanding Song for “Unbreakable”. She also received the Starlight Award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In October 2006, she played the voice of Mommy Martian in the “Mission to Mars” episode of the children’s television series The Backyardigans, in which she sang an original song, “Almost Everything Is Boinga Here”. That same year, Keys nearly suffered a mental breakdown. Her grandmother had died and her family was heavily dependent on her. She felt she needed to “escape” and went to Egypt for three weeks. She explained: “That trip was definitely the most crucial thing I’ve ever done for myself in my life to date. It was a very difficult time that I was dealing with, and it just came to the point where I really needed to—basically, I just needed to run away, honestly. And I needed to get as far away as possible.”
Keys made her film debut in early 2007 in the crime film Smokin’ Aces, co-starring as an assassin named Georgia Sykes opposite Ben Affleck and Andy García. Keys received much praise from her co-stars in the film; Reynolds said that Keys was “so natural” and that she would “blow everybody away”. In the same year, Keys earned further praise for her second film, The Nanny Diaries, based on the 2002 novel of the same name, where she co-starred alongside Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans. She also guest starred as herself in the “One Man Is an Island” episode of the drama series Cane.
Keys released her third studio album, As I Am, in November 2007; it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 742,000 copies in its first week. It gained Keys her largest first week sales of her career and became her fourth consecutive number one album, tying her with Britney Spears for the most consecutive number-one debuts on the Billboard 200 by a female artist. The week became the second largest sales week of 2007 and the largest sales week for a female solo artist since singer Norah Jones‘ album Feels like Home in 2004. The album has sold nearly four million copies in the United States and has been certified three times Platinum by the RIAA. It has sold nearly six million copies worldwide. Keys received five nominations for As I Am at the 2008 American Music Award and ultimately won two. The album’s lead single, “No One“, peaked at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, becoming Keys’ third and fifth number-one single on each chart, respectively. The album’s second single, “Like You’ll Never See Me Again“, was released in late 2007 and peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. The album’s third single, “Teenage Love Affair“, peaked at number three on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. She released the fourth single, “Superwoman“, which peaked at number 82 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 12 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.
“No One” earned Keys the awards for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song at the 2008 Grammy Awards.Keys opened the ceremony singing Frank Sinatra‘s 1950s song “Learnin’ the Blues” as a “duet” with archival footage of Sinatra in video and “No One” with John Mayer later in the show. Keys also won Best Female R&B Artist during the show. She starred in “Fresh Takes”, a commercial micro-series created by Dove Go Fresh, which premiered during The Hills on MTV from March to April 2008. The premiere celebrated the launch of new Dove Go Fresh. She also signed a deal as spokesperson with Glacéau’s VitaminWater to endorse the product, and was in an American Express commercial for the “Are you a Cardmember?” campaign. Keys, along with The White Stripes‘ guitarist and lead vocalist Jack White, recorded the theme song to Quantum of Solace, the first duet in Bond soundtrack history. In 2008, Keys was ranked in at number 80 the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists. She also starred in The Secret Life of Bees, a film adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd‘s acclaimed 2003 bestseller novel of the same name alongside Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah, released in October 2008 via Fox Searchlight. Her role earned her a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards. She also received three nominations at the 2009 Grammy Awards and won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Superwoman”.
In an interview with Blender magazine, Keys allegedly said “‘Gangsta rap‘ was a ploy to convince black people to kill each other, ‘gangsta rap’ didn’t exist” and went on to say that it was created by “the government”. The magazine also claimed she said that Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. were “essentially assassinated, their beefs stoked by the government and the media, to stop another great black leader from existing”. Keys later wrote a statement clarifying the issues and saying her words were misinterpreted. Later that year, Keys was criticized by anti-smoking campaigners after billboard posters for her forthcoming concerts in Indonesia featured a logo for the A Mild cigarette brand sponsored by tobacco firm Philip Morris. She apologized after discovering that the concert was sponsored by the firm and asked for “corrective actions”. In response, the company withdrew its sponsorship.
2009–present: The Element of Freedom, marriage and motherhood
Keys and manager Jeff Robinson signed a film production deal to develop live-action and animated projects with Disney. Their first film will be a remake of the 1958 comedy Bell, Book and Candle and will star Keys as a witch who casts a love spell to lure a rival’s fiancé. Keys and Robinson also formed a television production company called Big Pita. Keys and Robinson will develop live-action and animated projects from their company, Big Pita and Little Pita, with Keys as producer, thespian, banner spearheading soundtrack and music supervision.
Keys collaborated with record producer Swizz Beatz to write and produce “Million Dollar Bill” for Whitney Houston‘s seventh studio album, I Look to You. Keys had approachedClive Davis for permission to submit a song for the album. Keys also collaborated with recording artist Jay-Z on the song “Empire State of Mind” from his 2009 album, The Blueprint 3. The song topped the Billboard Hot 100 and became her fourth number-one single on that chart. Swizz Beatz announced in May 2009, that he and Keys have been romantically involved. The Boston Globe reported “Swizz and his estranged wife, Mashonda, are currently embroiled in a bitter divorce. He has always denied reports Alicia was to blame for the breakdown of his marriage”.
The following month, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honored Keys with the Golden Note Award, an award given to artists “who have achieved extraordinary career milestones”. She collaborated with Spanish recording artist Alejandro Sanz for “Looking for Paradise“, which topped the Hot Latin Songs chart. Keys released her fourth studio album, The Element of Freedom, in December 2009. It debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, selling 417,000 copies in its first week. As part of the promotional drive for the album, she performed at the Cayman Island Jazz Festival on December 5, the final night of the three day festival which will be broadcast onBlack Entertainment Television (BET). The album’s lead single, “Doesn’t Mean Anything“, has peaked at number 60 on the Billboard Hot 100. Keys was ranked as the top R&B recording artist of the 2000–2009 decade by Billboard magazine and ranked at number five as artist of the decade, while her song, “No One“, was ranked at number six on the magazine’s songs of the decade. In the United Kingdom, The Element of Freedom became Keys’ first album to top the UK Albums Chart.
In May 2010, a representative for Keys and Swizz Beatz confirmed that they were engaged and expecting a child together. During the time of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the couple took part of a union and had the unborn child blessed in a Zulu ceremony, which took place in the Illovo suburb of South Africa. Keys and Swizz Beatz held a wedding celebration on the French island of Corsica on July 31, 2010.Keys gave birth to a son, Egypt Daoud Dean, on October 14, 2010 in New York City.
Keys often incorporates piano into her songs
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An accomplished pianist, Keys incorporates piano into a majority of her songs and often writes about love, heartbreak and female empowerment. She has cited several musicians as her inspirations, including Prince, Nina Simone, Barbra Streisand, Marvin Gaye, Quincy Jones, Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. Keys’ style is rooted in gospel and vintage soul music, supplemented by bass and programmed drumbeats. She heavily incorporates classical piano with R&B, soul and jazz into her music. She began experimenting with other genres, including pop and rock, in her third studio album, As I Am, transitioning from neo soul to a 1980s and 1990s R&B sound with her fourth album, The Element of Freedom.Patrick Huguenin of the New York Daily News stated that her incorporation of classical piano riffs contributed to her breakout success. Jet magazine states she “thrives” by touching her fans with “piano mastery, words and melodious voice”. The Independent described her style as consisting of “crawling blues coupled with a hip-hop backbeat”, noting that her lyrics “rarely stray from matters of the heart”. Blender magazine referred to her as “the first new pop artist of the millennium who was capable of changing music.”
Keys has a vocal range of a contralto, which spans three octaves. Often referred to as the “Princess of Soul“, Keys has been commended as having a strong, raw and impassioned voice; others feel that her voice is “emotionally manufactured” at times and that she pushes her voice out of its natural range. Keys’ songwriting is often criticized for lack of depth, which has led to her writing abilities being called limited. Her lyrics have been called generic,clichéd and that her songs revolve around generalities. Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune feels that she “[pokes] around for multi-format hits rather than trying to project any sort of artistic vision”. Diversely, Jon Pareles of Blender magazine stated that the musical composition of her songs makes up for their lyrical weakness, while Gregory Stephen Tate of The Village Voice compared Keys’ writing and production to 1970s music.
Joanna Hunkin of The New Zealand Herald reviewed one of Keys’ performances, where Kylie Minogue also attended. She described Minogue’s reaction to Keys’ performance, saying “it was obvious she was just as much of a fan as the 10,000 other people at Vector Arena“. She went on to say that Minogue was “the original pop princess bowing down to the modern-day queen of soul”. Hunkin characterized Keys’ opening performance as a “headbanging, hip-gyrating performance” and her energy as “high-octane energy most bands save for their closing finale”. At the end of her two-hour performance, fans “screamed, stomped and begged for a second encore”. Hillary Crosley and Mariel Concepcion of Billboard magazine noted that her shows are “extremely coordinated” with the audience’s attention span “consistently maintained”. The show ended with a standing ovation and Keys “proved that a dynamic performance mixed with superior musicianship always wins”. Throughout her career, Keys has won numerous awards and is listed on the Recording Industry Association of America‘s best-sellingartists in the United States, with 15 million certified albums. She has sold over 30 million albums worldwide and has established herself as one of the best-selling artists of her time.
Keys is the co-founder and Global Ambassador of Keep a Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides medicine to families with HIV and AIDS in Africa. Keys and U2lead singer Bono recorded a cover version of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush‘s “Don’t Give Up“, in recognition of World AIDS Day 2005. Keys and Bono’s version of the song was retitled “Don’t Give Up (Africa)” to reflect the nature of the charity it was benefiting. She visited African countries such as Uganda, Kenya and South Africa to promote care for children affected by AIDS. Her work in Africa was documented in the documentary Alicia in Africa: Journey to the Motherland and was available in April 2008.
Keys has also donated to Frum tha Ground Up, a non-profit organization that aids children and teenagers with scholarships. She performed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of the worldwide Live 8 concerts to raise awareness of the poverty in Africa and to pressure the G8 leaders to take action. In 2005, Keys performed on ReAct Now: Music & Relief and Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast, two benefit programs that raised money for those affected by Hurricane Katrina. In July 2007, Keys and Keith Urban performed The Rolling Stones‘ 1969 song “Gimme Shelter” at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey at the American leg of the Live Earthconcerts.
Keys performed Donny Hathaway‘s 1973 song “Someday We’ll All Be Free” at the America: A Tribute to Heroes televised benefit concert following the September 11 attacks.She participated in the Nobel Peace Prize Concert which took place at the Oslo Spektrum in Oslo, Norway, on December 11, 2007, along with other various artists. She recorded a theme song for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. She joined Joss Stone and Jay-Z on the effort, which served as a theme song for Obama’s campaign. For her work, Keys was honored at the 2009 BET Awards with the Humanitarian Award. Keys performed the song “Prelude to a Kiss”, retitled “Send Me an Angel”, from her 2007 album As I Am for the “Hope for Haiti Now: A Global Benefit for Earthquake Relief” telethon in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
- Studio albums
- Songs in A Minor (2001)
- The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003)
- As I Am (2007)
- The Element of Freedom (2009)
- Live albums
- Unplugged (2005)
- Songs in A Minor Tour (2001–2002)
- Verizon Ladies First Tour (2004)
- The Diary Tour (2005)
- As I Am Tour (2008)
- The Freedom Tour (2010)