They were two of the most
successful new female artists of 2001, and both walked away with significant
honors at the Grammy Awards in early 2002.
Now, Alicia Keys and Nelly Furtado are back with their eagerly
anticipated second albums. But instead of improving upon the unique,
genre-defying traits of their debuts, "The Diary of Alicia Keys" and
Furtado's "Folklore" both suffer by attempting to be everything to all
listeners, and the artists' personalities are lost in the process.
Propelled by a nearly unprecedented, multimillion-dollar marketing
campaign courtesy of Clive Davis' J Records, Keys' debut, "Songs in A
Minor," sold an astounding 10 million copies worldwide. But the shortcomings
of the 22-year-old New York native were already apparent as she toured in
support of the disc, displaying an awkward stiffness onstage and moving
jarringly from piano showboating to stilted rapping to sappy, faux-soul
"The Diary of Alicia Keys" continues trying to walk this tightrope, but
all too often, the diva trips and falls into the net. Self-produced (with
help from the likes of Timbaland on the hip-hop tip and Tony Toni Tone on
the R&B end), Keys professes to be giving listeners an unedited glimpse at
her inner thoughts.
"These songs are like my daily entrees," she writes in the liner notes.
"Writing helps me thru."
But the lyrics are rife with cliches ("What goes around comes around/What
goes up must come down," she sings in "Karma," practically inviting derision
from skeptics who called her debut a hype), and the grooves and melodies
often seem schizophrenic.
There are sub-"Shaft" funk jams ("Heartburn"), horny hip-hop come-ons
("Harlem's Nocturne") and saccharine cocktail-lounge pop songs worthy of
Billy Joel ("If I Ain't Got You").
Finally, when Keys attempts to graft a cover of the soulful slow jam "If
I Was Your Woman," a chestnut associated with Gladys Knight, with raga
guitar licks and a melody lifted from (and credited to) the Burt
Bacharach/Hal David easy-listening standard "Walk On By," it's enough to
give you whiplash.
Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Furtado is back after taking time off to have
a baby following the release of her debut, "Whoa, Nelly," which sold almost
2.5 million copies and scored a Grammy for the fetching single "I'm Like a
Bird." There's nothing as instantly endearing as that hit on the new album,
but Furtado opens the disc with a defiant exclamation of her artistic
ambitions. "I am not a one-trick pony," she sings. "I really feel that
nothing can hold me."
Indeed, while "Folklore" is being hyped as putting more of an emphasis on
the singer-songwriter's roots in traditional Portuguese music, the opening
track, "One-Trick Pony," attempts an uneasy merger of hip-hop rhythms, a big
pop sing-along chorus, banjo, Hawaiian guitar and the classical strings of
the Kronos Quartet.
The album (which was produced by Furtado and Mike Elizondo) suffers from
this sort of dizzying eclecticism throughout. And like "The Diary of Alicia
Keys," it's full or trite or downright embarrassing lyrics.
"Paint my face in your magazines/Make it look whiter than it seems,"
Furtado sings in "Powerless (Say What You Want)." "Paint me over with your
dreams/ Shove away my ethnicity."
The artist herself is the one who is shying away from her roots, lacking
the confidence to commit to traditional material -- or even more modern
world-beat sounds -- by injecting big dollops of rote pop and hip-hop into
Keys and Furtado are both blessed with powerful vocal instruments, and
both are driven to the extent that they will likely have long careers on the
pop charts. Hopefully, they'll show more courage on future recordings, stop
trying to appeal to every marketing demographic and follow paths that are
truly their own.