Alicia Keys Comes Home

On the 20th anniversary of Songs in A Minor, the artist reflects on who she was then — and who she's been all along.

A closeup of Alicia Keys, Bustle's May cover star.

It’s 1 a.m. at the Sultan Room, and Alicia Keys is grooving under the exit sign. There’s no backstage — the late-night lounge is tucked in the back of a Turkish restaurant in Brooklyn — so she is essentially in the hallway, right next to the quilted vinyl door to the restaurant’s kitchen, only partly concealed by the DJ booth. The event is a secret show for Afropunk 2019, rumored to be a night with Alicia and friends; the audience is expectant, and the house is packed. The room is mostly press, session musicians, and music aficionados. Janelle Monáe and her Wondaland crew occupy a big black booth in the back left corner; behind me stands Kamasi Washington’s guitarist.

The band plays “I Need You,” off of Keys’ 2007 album As I Am, and she begins to harmonize. Suddenly everyone is on their feet. It’s cramped, but Keys two-steps through the crowd, making it work. She breaks pace occasionally to sing the first verse alongside audience members. She looks relaxed, in her pocket, wearing a red, military-style beret, bootcut jeans, and a cut-off Toto “Africa” T-shirt. Her hair is in a long, bejeweled, braid. The backlit stage turns red, the spotlights purple — root and crown chakra colored. She takes to the “keys” that became her stage name, looks at us all for a second, and starts to play. The entire room is transported.

Hermès clothing, Maryjane Claverol turban
Hermès clothing, Maryjane Claverol turban
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“Oh my gosh, I felt the exact same way,” Keys recalls now, in the spring of 2021, when I mention that she was one of the last people I saw in concert before the world shut down more than a year ago. “I just felt totally transported by that show. That space was so sick.”

I promise myself I won’t scream when her face appears on-screen, but I do anyway. Self-control is difficult when you are suddenly face to face with Alicia Keys: the pianist, songwriter, composer and producer; the philanthropist and businesswoman; the artist. Early June marks the 20th anniversary of her debut album, Songs in A Minor. It’s also when her Keys Soulcare beauty and lifestyle brand will launch three new products.

It’s been a prolific couple of years for Keys. Since that night at the Sultan Room, she has published her first memoir, More Myself: A Journey, and last fall she dropped her seventh studio album, Alicia. There’s an aura of tranquil satisfaction to the 40-year-old performer, who is also the grateful mother of a blended family that includes her own two sons, Egypt, 10, and Genesis, 6, who she shares with her husband, record producer Swizz Beats. Over the last two decades, it feels as if we’ve watched Keys not only come of age but come home.

I never know exactly how it’s going to happen. Never. Not when I’m writing a song. Not when I’m performing a show... that magic is something I deeply respect.

“It's still all magic to me, though,” Keys says, looking back. “That never changes. It’s all magic. I never know exactly how it’s going to happen. Never. Not when I'm writing a song. Not when I'm performing a show. I never know exactly how it's gonna be. I work for it. I practice hard. I try my best. But, whatever is gonna happen is gonna happen. And that magic is something I deeply respect.”

Keys radiates reverence and humility, but she is also just radiant. In recent years, as she has pared down her beauty look, often opting for a bare, gleaming face over the heavy make-up typically required of entertainers, it’s become impossible to talk about Alicia Keys without mentioning her glow. Perhaps it was only a matter of time until she bottled that particular magic. With Keys Soulcare, Keys is following the now well-trod path from celebrity mom to lifestyle mogul. But when Keys describes the line as a reflection of her own personal evolution, you’re inclined to believe her.

“All my life, I've had to figure out this balance between how you're able to offer people an experience and how that can also remain pure,” she says of the challenges of launching a beauty brand that reflects her values as an artist and a human being — and then making money off of it. She’s learned to think of selling anything she creates, from her music to Keys Soulcare, as an exchange of energy. She pours so much of herself into what she does, “It’s OK that you’re asking for something in return because money is just energy, really.”

Video shot by Quil Lemons

Keys’ energy permeates Keys Soulcare. The products, including the new Renewing Hand + Body Wash, Rich Nourishing Body Cream, and Sacred Body Oil being released June 8, are “offerings.” The suggested order of application is a “ritual” rather than a “routine.” Each offering is accompanied by its own affirmation written by the artist. The one for the Sacred Body Oil states, “Everything I do is an act of creation.”

Mary Dillon, a personal friend of Keys’ and the CEO of Ulta Beauty, sees Keys Soulcare as exactly what you would hope and expect an Alicia Keys beauty line to be, especially the fact that it’s about more than beauty. “Alicia’s passion translate[s] so beautifully into this line….The importance place[d] on rituals, [with] self-care at the center. It’s a refreshing, thoughtful, and unique approach to beauty.”

Keys and I are talking about the inherent intimacy of skin care — memories of a specific room, the smell of a mother’s cheek — when, right on cue, Keys’ son Egypt comes up to her and wraps his arms around her, nuzzling his sun-kissed nose into her face.

Her journey toward self-care started when she had Egypt. “Motherhood was the first time that I recognized, Wow, there’s so many things people want from you that I’m not willing to give anymore because it’s not important enough. I didn’t know how to do that before. I never knew how to say no. But then through him, I learned enough love for myself to say, You know, this person is no good for me, or This relationship that used to work isn’t working anymore, or That way I used to say yes to traveling a million miles across a million oceans to get to this one place for one hour and then turn around and come back? It’s just not the best idea. Being a mother is definitely the reason I came into myself. I know for sure that prior to it, I still didn’t know myself. I still didn’t understand my own worth and importance.”

For Keys, motherhood is also a spiritual concept, a sense of origin and lineage, a covenant between herself, her foremothers, and the future. “I love how ancient cultures honor so many things,” she says. “It’s all about this honoring of oneself as part of one’s environment: of one’s family, of one’s mother, of one’s children, of the Earth, of the planet, of the frogs… all the things. It’s good to be able to care for things in that capacity. Everything matters.”

The point of Keys Soulcare was to help others tap into a sense of meaning. “These offerings give you moments to fill yourself up. It’s such a simple thing, to say what you need, but it’s so big,” Keys says. “When I’m able to [do that], I feel more beautiful, more powerful, and more possible. ”

I was so young — 14, 16, 18. And in these spaces, I naturally thought everybody knew better than me. Because what did I know? I was just starting.

How is Alicia Keys possible? Some music careers are engineered. Some are the result of good luck. By all accounts, Keys' combination of self-possession, artistic vision, and sheer musical talent is once in a generation.

Keys’ mother, Terria Joseph, says she realized very gradually that music was more than just a hobby for her daughter, who she raised on her own in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. “There were many ‘firsts’ — who can remember? — but I think as I saw her grasp the meaning of tempo and practice — and … play a tune after only one or two listenings — it dawned on me: this is her gift.”

Clive Davis, the renowned music executive who introduced the world to legendary acts like Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and, well, Alicia Keys, vividly recalls his early days working with Keys, before he signed her and produced Songs in A Minor. He and Keys keep up; when I call him to talk about her, she and her sons have just come over to his house for a visit. Like the rest of us, Davis was captivated as soon as he watched teenage Keys sit down at a piano. "When I auditioned Alicia, I was stunned by the combination of her musicianship, her composer strength, and her beauty. I knew that we had the potential of introducing someone who would be an all-timer."

Joseph describes her daughter in the years leading up to her debut as “so young, chronologically, but with a maturity I didn’t quite understand myself. [By 17], she was already in college; had been valedictorian of her high-school graduating class. Had been working since age 9 to make her mad money, since we didn’t have much, and had been studying classical piano for 10 years.”

Despite her maturity and unique talent, Keys writes candidly in her memoir about struggling to set healthy boundaries. She, too, fell prey to practices that have become synonymous with how the music industry treated young, female artists in the ‘90s. She writes about attempts to control her image in ways that prioritized sex appeal and popularity over the street-chic authenticity that has always been Keys’ brand. One of the most remarkable aspects of Keys’ career is how much control she has always seemed to have over her look and sound — a 2002 New York Times headline read, “To Be Alicia Keys: Young, Gifted, and in Control” — but she describes herself in those early days as a “people pleaser.”

Hermès overalls, Maryjane Claverol turban

“Everything [back then] was so brand new and so foreign. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what I was — I didn’t know what anybody was — doing there,” she says. I saw Alicia Keys perform during that first A Minor tour 20 years ago. I was a teenager, and Keys was barely 20, taking to the sold-out stage of a Midwestern arena, looking stunned that this was where her love for the piano had gotten her.

“Back then, I was trying to fill the shoes of something that I just didn’t know anything about,” she tells me. “There’s a whole world of wisdom that’s come since.”

But through that period, Keys had people who supported her artistic instincts and helped her build the creative confidence that now typifies her laid-back musical style. One of those people was Davis, who took care to stay out of Keys’ way creatively. “When you have someone who is [a] composer, who writes her own material, like Alicia... you wait for the album to be delivered,” he told me. Another was producer Kerry “Krucial” Brothers Jr., who she would work with on A Minor and its follow-up, The Diary of Alicia Keys.

Some of the most touching chapters in More Myself describe Keys’ collaboration with Krucial in her early days. They knew each other from ciphers they would both attend in the Village in the early ’90s, when Krucial was a well-known local MC who regularly performed in Washington Square Park and Keys was still in a teen girl group called EmBishion. She had signed with Columbia Records at 15 (Davis’ J Records would eventually buy Keys out of that deal and release the album), but she wasn’t happy with the direction they wanted to take her music, Brothers tells me from his home in Los Angeles while managing his two youngest sons on school Zooms. “It’s not going too good,” he remembers Alicia confiding. “They’re not listening to me. They’re trying to make me something else.”

By his account, one day Keys said to him, “I like what we do,” referring to the improvisational, gritty feel of the ciphers where they first collaborated. “I like the vibe, I like the energy.” Then she told Krucial she wanted him to work as a producer on the album that became Songs in A Minor.

No matter what age you are, nobody knows you better than you.

Keys speaks of that era in terms of the encouragement Krucial gave her — she needed “a space to explore my creative process and music and to be able to learn how to be a producer, to learn how to be an arranger, to learn how to be at the helm of my music, with a support system,” she tells me. “Krucial really cared about me knowing those things.”

“The beauty of the album is I wasn’t the best drum programmer and she wasn’t the best pianist, and that made us lean more on the songwriting and the feeling,” Brothers recalls. “I think that is the key to what made [Songs in A Minor] connect with so many people. We didn’t lead with technique or trends. We led with feeling first, and then figured out what we needed to make the production complete.”

In the long run, Keys’ adherence to her own vision for Songs in A Minor paid off. Within a year of its release, the album went platinum five times and won Keys her first five Grammys. She was crowned the queen of the neo-soul movement. But the album’s first single, “Fallin’,” “was not a slam dunk,” Davis recalls. The song, which ultimately won Song of the Year, had difficulty finding its way onto the radio, an essential step in turning any song into a hit. “The pop stations wanted the urban stations to break it first, but the urban stations questioned its viability, looking for a song that had more tempo. … The truth is, I got worried.” So Davis did two things. First, he had Keys perform at his annual Grammys party, attended by power players in the industry and beyond. “Every tastemaker there was blown away,” Davis says.

Second, he wrote to Oprah. After Keys’ appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, “Fallin’” shot right up the hits chart to No. 1.

“I had a lot of great working relationships with really strong men, which showed me how to stand up for myself,” Keys reflects now. “Those relationships really helped me to find my way and to understand it.”

They also gave her a degree of protection she might not have had otherwise. “Obviously, with hindsight, everything you see is 20/20, but when I look back at my relationship with Krucial, I know it was ordained. It protected me at a very young age from being around people that didn’t have my best interests at heart. I was so young — 14, 16, 18. And in these spaces, I naturally thought everybody knew better than me. Because what did I know? I was just starting. But then I realized, no matter what age you are, nobody knows you better than you.”

Mugler top, Keys’ own ring
Brandon Maxwell dress

The theme of self-knowledge pervades Keys’ latest album, Alicia, released in September. After two decades of music-making, it’s the first one she has self-titled. “It is about me being able to really embrace all the different sides of the complex, divine nature that we all have inside of us.” Musically but also in life, Keys says, we tend to subscribe to the idea that “you're only supposed to be one person.” She’s had to work to unsubscribe. “It’s scary! Because you’re like, Do I really want to know what crazy ‘Licia say? I've done so well [without her]!

Unlike so many of Keys’ previous releases that became popular for their reflections on romantic relationships, building strong families, and women claiming their power, the songs on Alicia focus on self-exploration. They have all the intimacy we’ve come to expect from Keys’ hits, but the woman she writes about in this music is as good at setting boundaries as she is at being vulnerable. On the track “So Done,” Keys sings, “I’m so, so done/ guardin’ my tongue / holdin’ me back / I’m livin’ the way that I want.”

I’ve never been the artist that puts on an act. It’s never been for pretend.

“A lot of people say the Alicia album is as close to the Songs in A Minor album that they’ve heard, in its exploration of music, sonics, and styles,” Keys says.“I love that I’ve always been able to continue that as a thread.”

In the spirit of the Krucial and Keys teamwork that brought us Songs in A Minor’s street-smart mix of classical and urban music, the Alicia album is replete with artistic collaborations. It includes Keys’ and Brandi Carlile’s movement-sized get-out-the-vote ballad “A Beautiful Noise.” Tierra Whack accompanies her on “Me x 7.” On “Jill Scott,” a song Keys wrote for Scott after watching the songstress on her Verzuz battle with Erykah Badu, Keys’ featured performer is the lead singer.

“I’m so much more open now,” Keys says. “You’re just free to explore and express. All of us. Not just as a musician or as an artist. You can choose who you want to collaborate with. And the magic — or something! — is going to come from it.”

Brandon Maxwell dress
Mugler top

Here we are, on the eve of the A Minor anniversary, and Alicia Keys is writing new songs. “The next album is a homecoming,” she tells me. As much as Keys’ music transports her fans, it also brings her back, again and again, to the soul she’s been showing us, and trying to care for, all along.

“I’ve never been the artist that puts on an act. It’s never been for pretend. I’ve always been exactly who I am in that moment — in that space and in that time. It helps to be able to be the one that’s creating everything you’re hearing. To create the lyrics, the music, the production, the arrangements, to order it. Every part of it is a part of this process, and this way that I want to express [myself] in this time.”

Spending time with her on Zoom, I sometimes catch her looking out at me the way I’ve seen her look out into a live audience, as if she’s the one staring at stars — a whole constellation.

“My favorite thing that people say, when they meet me, is, ‘You’re just like how I thought you’d be,’” Keys says. “I really, really, love that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the title of Keys' next album. The error has been corrected.

Top Image Credit: Mugler top

Photographer: Quil Lemons

Stylist: Jason Bolden

Hair: Nai'vasha Grace

Makeup: Tasha Reiko Brown

Manicurist: Temeka Jackson

Set Designer: Robert Ziemer

Bookings: Special Projects

Videographer: Cole Cook

Video Director: Arthur Johnson