The title of Alicia Keys' follow-up to her 10- million-selling debut suggests a biographically themed concept album along the lines of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but The Diary of Alicia Keys is less deliberately structured, and much less revealing. Indeed, with a less charitable outlook, one might consider it an attempt to lend some spurious depth and gravitas to what is actually a pretty average collection of songs: a typical second helping, not bad in itself, but lacking the novelty of the new.
As soul divas go, Alicia is more bearable than most, her classical-piano chops affording her a degree of genuine class that stands out strongly against the trashy, tinsel-and-gilt notion of "sophistication" that usually characterises the genre. It's upfront here too, right from the rhapsodic piano intro that leads into the downbeat groove of "Harlem's Nocturne", through the wispy violin figure of "Karma", and the "what goes around comes around" piece which follows, to "Diary" itself, where her lacy piano work is hemmed with neat stitches of guitar. In all honesty, "Diary" is something of a let down, with none of the implied revelations, just Alicia fishing for gossip: "Your secrets are safe with me/ Just think of me as the pages of your diary".
So it goes throughout the rest of the album, with Keys mostly recycling commonplace sentiments in songs such as "Wake Up" ("Why must we argue over the same things, just to go back and forth all over again?") and "When You Really Love Someone" ("A man ain't a man unless he can love you when you're right, love you when you're wrong, love you when you're weak, love you when you're strong"). The focus on relationships leaves a powerful whiff of daytime TV talk shows about several songs, as Alicia frets about how to find "somebody with some empathy" and wonders: "Who's gonna rescue us from ourselves?" She doesn't actually use the terms "low self-esteem" or "assertiveness", but they're not far from the surface of these songs. Mind you, even guff like "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" would be preferable to "Dragon Days", where lazy clichés such as "a damsel in distress" and "my castle became a dungeon" are employed as metaphors for loneliness, for days that "drag on" (ouch!).
"Streets of New York", the track offered as a trailer to the album, gives a deceptive impression of its contents, with raps from Nas and Rakim suggesting Alicia has gone more hip-hop. In fact, she's as traditional as ever, with Seventies soul influences appearing via samples of Gladys Knight andthe Isley Brothers' classic "Summer Breeze" riff. Best of all, perhaps, is the forthcoming single "You Don't Know My Name", a symphonic soul exercise whose arrangement emulates the ecstatic tremors once conjured by Marvin Gaye and Leon Ware, topped with Alicia's most accomplished vocal.
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