Alicia Keys is having a funky hair day. R&B's new queen is in a New York brownstone doing a cover photo shoot for Essence magazine, but her signature braids are a bit too frizzy, and her personal braider will have to unravel her lengthy mane and begin again. Keys used to braid her own hair until her little gospel gem of a song, "Fallin'," hit the charts and catapulted her to stardom. The 20-year-old Bronx, N.Y., native released her debut album, "Songs in A Minor," in June, right at the start of Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious" summer. Six million fans eager for more talent and less cleavage (and obviously less booty) quickly migrated to Keys's melodic voice and smooth piano skills. With a soulful crossover appeal not seen since Janet Jackson, Keys's luminous beauty and dressed-down jeans-and-do-rag glamour won both mainstream and hard-core hip-hop fans handily. Both Mark Wahlberg and Snoop Dogg eagerly pronounce themselves members of her fan club.
"It took off and it just didn't stop," says Keys of her seemingly overnight success. "I thought I did good work and I hoped people would like it, but it's been crazy, the attention I've been getting. I'm like, 'Are you sure they want me on Leno?' or 'You're sure Prince wants to meet me?' It's bonkers."
Suddenly Keys seemed to be everywhere, on the covers of Rolling Stone and Seventeen, and chatting up Oprah. She even hit a patriotic note along with George Clooney and Julia Roberts at September's "America: A Tribute to Heroes" telethon, where she mesmerized the crowd with a rendition of soul legend Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free." Already nominated for five American Music Awards, including best new artist, the singer seems a shoo-in for a host of Grammy nods in January.
But as eventful as the past year has been for Keys, success seems to have had little effect on the Columbia University dropout's personality. In fact, she seems more like a wide-eyed kid on an extended trip to Disneyland than a diva in training. One of her biggest problems is finding quality time to hang out with her friends. "You try to just keep it the same--your life, your friends, your regular schedule. That keeps you grounded," says Keys. "I have the same boyfriend, friends, what have you."
Nonetheless, Keys says, "it's been a mad, mad ride, and you can't explain it." Maybe you can. When you combine cover-girl beauty with an album full of radio-friend-ly, funky grooves and top it off with the promotional muscle of J Records' president, Clive Davis (the man who discovered Janis and Whitney)--voila!--another star is born. And the timing is right. Over the last few years, neo-soul pioneers such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott have opened the door for something a little more cerebral, honest and emotional in music. Keys had no problem walking right through that door and settling in. "I was hearing some good music out there and wanted to join in," says Keys. "I wasn't worried that it wasn't going to be accepted because it was different. I knew people appreciate real music when they hear it."
Will Smith was so blown away by Keys's sound that he immediately called J Records to get her music added to the then nearly completed "Ali" soundtrack, which hit the stores on Dec. 1. Her song "Fallin' " appears as the only contemporary number in a film otherwise laced with '60s hits by heavyweights like Sam Cooke.
Keys's long-term goal is to prove that she's more than just another pretty, one-hit wonder. As she begins work on a new album for release in late 2002, the singer hopes to avoid the sophomore jinx that dogged the likes of Macy Gray and D'Angelo. "It's tough because the trends change so quickly in music," Keys says. "But this is what I chose to do. Since I was a kid, even when I wanted to stop taking piano lessons, I kept going because I loved music. You have to walk out on faith.'' If her fans keep the faith, it should be a nice long walk.