"Careful with your ego, he's the one that we should blame/Had to grab my heart back/God know something had to change…"–Alicia Keys ("Brand New Me")
"Funny you're the broken one but I'm the only one who needed saving/Cause when you never see the light it's hard to know which one of us is caving…"–Rihanna ("Stay")
Nearly a billion fans will tune in to watch the upcoming Super Bowl XLVII — a mammoth celebration that, for rabid football followers, lands somewhere between Mardi Gras and Christmas in St. Barts. Yet, beyond Sunday’s New Orleans smash-up between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, novice viewers who couldn’t tell the difference between brothers and opposing head coaches John and Jim Harbaugh will be watching to get their pop culture fix. Inevitably, talk will turn to which TV commercial got the biggest laughs; whether or not a post lip-synching, headline-making Beyoncé lived up to the 2007 half-time show brilliance of Prince; and how Alicia Keys fared in hitting those hazardous notes to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
For the latter extravaganza, Keys, 32, will kick off the game on America’s biggest televised stage, yet another milestone for the uber Grammy winning singer-songwriter. For those keeping score, since her 2001 debut Songs in A Minor — which went on to sell 12 million copies worldwide — that’s 14 golden gramophones; five no. 1 albums; three chart-topping singles; five sold-out tours and unmitigated praise from everyone from Stevie Wonder to U2’s Bono. When it came time for the aforementioned Purple One to get the first-ballot call from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, it was Keys and Outkast who were chosen to induct the legendary music icon. Thus far, it’s been a charmed life for Keys.
Indeed, before I finally came to my senses and ran into the arms of the less talented Rihanna (more on that revelation later), I fell for Alicia Keys’ act. Hell, like millions of other music heads, I never had a chance. Her bio was too immaculate, too unbelievable. It was the sort of back-story that could only be written by a hack Hollywood screenwriter: an 18-year-old, biracial beauty and piano prodigy from Hell’s Kitchen, NY, who at, a age 16, graduates two years early from New York’s Performing Arts College, and signs a solo deal to Columbia Records. After the music industry’s most powerful inside man Clive Davis discovers her raw songwriting talent, he co-signs and grooms the teenager to become her generation’s Roberta Flack—only bigger. This soulful throwback was as well versed in the ‘70s soul of Flack and others as she was in classical music and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard. In an era when the early ’00’s musical standard was the manufactured, one-trick pony, pop-coated/R&B likes of SIsqo, Keys was a revelation who fit the bill.
"When I was a kid I'd practice Chopin on piano – and I love Chopin!” Keys told The Guardian during a 2001 interview. “He's my dawg! Then I'd go out on the stoop and blast the radio. I'm from New York, the concrete jungle. Hip-hop influenced me from day one.”
Young, Black and Fabulous (The YBF.com) founder and influential celebrity blogger Natasha Eubanks recalls the moment she discovered Keys. “I was a sophomore in college…I remember watching VH1 Soul around 2001-2002,” she says. “It was like 2 in the morning and she’s on this bed with the phone in her hand singing ‘Fallin’ with these big ol’ braids. I was like, ‘Who is this girl???’ I became obsessed with her and the only station that was playing Alicia was VH1 Soul. I literally watched VH1 just to catch that video again because it was so different than everybody out at the time.”
Eubanks stops to catch her breath as she details the overwhelming talent that was Alicia Keys. “Everybody else was just pop driven…they really couldn’t sing or play an instrument. Alicia came on the scene with a true passion-felt sound. She’s playing the piano, she wrote the songs…everything was her.”
So what happened? How did I get from under the spell of Keys? I simply saw her for the devastatingly boring, uninspired artist that she was. Sure, there were other songs that garnered my attention: the heartbreaking soul of “You Don’t Know My Name;” the haunting “Karma;” and the ridiculously sexy “Un-Thinkable (I'm Ready).” But Keys’ slip was showing. It was the pleasant yet limited vocal range made all the more alarming when juxtaposed with the very same greats — think Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Donnie Hathaway — that critics were all too willing to make Keys a logical heir. The just-add-water nod to past classics (one of her worst offenders being the sneaky, derivative “Like You'll Never See Me Again,” which is basically “Purple Rain” on Zanax). Her soulless, square cover of Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore?” The blatant grabs for stadium anthem glory — headlined by the inescapable “No One.”
By the time Keys released the tepid, overbearing “Girl On Fire”, the nauseating title track from her latest album, it was a wrap. The only thing that would have made Keys more unbearable is if she changed the lyrics of said song to “Obama’s On Fire” and…HEY, WAIT A MINUTE! Keys actually pulled that contrived, “is this chick for real?” stunt during the President’s re-inauguration ball. Ironically, at the same time I was on the first train out of Alicia-ville, my slow and surprising appreciation for a more unpredictable act was continuing its evolution.
Sure, I laughed uncontrollably at Rihanna’s early attempts at what she called singing. The Bajan performer was (and still is) stunning. But as she dropped her 2005 debut, no amount of polish, beauty or publicity could mask the reality that, at worst, her voice resembled a goat being operated on without anesthesia. Rihanna came off as a directionless, young Stepford Wife in training. Even her earliest press sessions were sterile and unspectacular. When asked what advice she would give to artists looking to break into the music business in 2005, she provided this stock answer to songwriter Dale Kawashima: “Never give up on your dreams. Keep holding onto them, and keep working to make it happen.” Yawn.
For Rihanna, getting a hit record was one thing. But becoming a worldwide superstar was a whole other animal, and, in order to do that, the newbie needed exceptional, infectious material and a more human, less plastic image. We all know what happened next. Starting with her seriously catchy 2007 single “Umbrella” — a track so epic in its simplistic brilliance that it could make Like A Prayer-era Madonna curse the pop music Gods — Rihanna found her groove. Since then she’s been on a one-woman mission to wear the sneering title as the hardest working, weed-smoking, fashion style-flipping, middle-finger-trolling, Chris Brown dating, sex bomb button-pushing, Instagram-posting performer on the scene today. At a time when social media has rendered the music biz (and just about everything else) into a playground for ADD-addled addicts looking for their next fix, Rihanna has become their undisputed queen. 28,080,197 Twitter followers says as much.
“Right now we are in age of the low attention span,” explains Tracy Garraud, radio personality and pop culture writer at Shade 45’s Sway In The Morning. “We have a fear of missing out and everyone’s main source of communication is through social network. And this girl Rihanna is literally using this triad to her benefit. She switches her look up all the time, so visually we’re stimulated to the tenth degree. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is Rihanna…’ and a week later she looks different on Instagram. Then she’s mentally stimulating because you never know what she’s going to do or say in an interview, on record or on Twitter. She’s doing all this without a muzzle.”
Even Rihanna’s music doesn’t give you the chance to keep up. Since Music of the Sun, the 24-year-old has dropped close to an album a year, her latest being the singer’s highest selling first-week debut (and best) to date, Unapologetic. Not all of her releases have been particularly worthy of the hype, but it’s Rihanna’s penchant for making some of her era’s most ear-catching singles that sets her apart from the rest of the pop music field. Whether it’s pure cotton candy fun (“Shut Up and Drive”); relentless dance workouts (“Don’t Stop The Music”); effortless, sexy turn ons (“Rude Boy”); or transcendent global anthems ("Only Girl-In the World”), Rihanna has cornered the market on continuous, diverse airwave bombardment, all doing so with the shameless drive of an S&M mistress who doesn’t know the meaning of a safe-word.
“When it came to Beyonce’ and Alicia, it was all about female independence,” Garraud continues. “Anything men can do we can do better…that was especially Beyonce’s complete ethos. And she dominated that and shaped an entire generation. I think that generation has grown up now and the dust that has been left behind has birthed a new breed of female performers that are all about sexual liberation. Rihanna is the ringleader of that sh!t. She’s very transparent, but at the same time she’s probably the most successful chameleon in recent music history after Madonna.”
Rihanna’s most potent one-two punch came in the form of 2011’s "We Found Love" and 2012’s “Diamonds,” works that put everyone on notice that when it came to pop, the well-worn musical genre was merely a toy for RiRi to play with. The former was the flawless representation of how high commercial, Euro-dance pop could soar when not subjected to the usual fist-pumping formulas. The latter, a gorgeous, hopeful, Sia-penned wonder that finally made me take Rihanna’s reign totally seriously.
To say I was confused is an understatement. I didn’t know what to make of the reality that the serious music snob in me was choosing an act that rarely wrote her own songs (Rihanna) and displayed, to put it diplomatically, shaky vocal chops over a classically trained artist who seemingly hit my street-cred sweet spot for serious artistry (Alicia Keys). It was if I was picking Trinidad James over Kendrick Lamar. Oh, the shame.
Eubanks is even more blunt with her assessment of Rihanna. “Talent is sometimes subjective…there are different aspects of it,” she explains. “However, with Rihanna, while I feel like she’s gotten better over time, I tend not to watch her because I don’t think she’s a good live performer. She has catchy songs that she didn’t write, so you can’t really give her that credit and say she’s talented. She didn’t write the songs and she didn’t produce the music…it is what it is.”
But as the shock began to wear off, it became abundantly clear that it was all about honesty for me. I believe Rihanna’s damaged, bad-girl routine, yet I can’t say the same for Key’s pristine, refined girl-power act. For better or worse, Rihanna isn’t afraid to place herself in the line-of-fire from critics, fans and jaded observers. One minute she’s crying on camera about the traumatic experience of being beaten to a bloody pulp by estranged boyfriend Chris Brown to Oprah and the next she’s admitting to Rolling Stone that her rekindled relationship with the controversial song-and-dance machine may not be a popular move, but it’s her cross to bear.
“I decided it was more important for me to be happy, and I wasn't going to let anybody's opinion get in the way of that,” confided the singer, who, for months has shown a defiant streak, posting illuminating images of herself and Brown delivering a series of fuck-offs, as well as releasing their shocking remix to “Birthday Cake” and their most recent duet "Nobody's Business" to outraged critics. “Even if it's a mistake, it's my mistake,” she adds. “After being tormented for so many years, being angry and dark, I'd rather just live my truth and take the backlash. I can handle it.”
On the flipside, Alicia Keys seems too scared to shake her above-it-all image on record and away from the studio. After years of being called out on accusations from R&B singer Mashonda that she was responsible for breaking up her marriage to husband Swizz Beatz (the super producer and Keys have since married and are raising a young boy), detractors wanted answers from the universally praised role model. Keys came off as appalled by any such notion. In this brave new Twitter world, she now stresses privacy.
“I mean, what the hell?” Keys told Complex in 2012. “The whole freaking world is looking at your shit. It’s scary. I didn’t want to say every single thing because you don’t want people to know that. There’s personal and there’s public, and I deserve the right to have a personal space.”
Garraud, however, believes Keys’ rich legacy is set in stone. She just thinks the accomplished talent owes it to her longtime fans to take some notes from the other side of the music spectrum.
“Look, not every artist has to be like Rihanna and be the most wanted woman in the world, Garraud says. “Alicia is still chilling; she has Grammy’s; she has the love-of-her-life and a beautiful child. The American dream is not the same for everyone, but it just seems that her approach to music is too methodical; even a bit lethargic. I’m just bored with her. It’s like being married to someone and it becomes routine to see the same person look the same damn way, say the damn things and at the same damn time on a daily basis. I feel like I’ve been married to Alicia Keys for 30 years and she’s walking around in a robe with slippers every day. What works is re-creating the Honeymoon period. That’s why Rihanna wins.”