Sometimes I forget about Alicia Keys. ‘Songs in A Minor’ (2001) and ‘The Diary of Alicia Keys’ (2003) were two of the albums which probably best defined the last decade and yet none of their singles seem to stick prominently in my mind. Trying to justify this, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m slightly amnesic when it comes to Alicia Augello Cook because there is no real reason for her songs to feature in any recollection. There is no ridiculous dance to accompany them, no particularly memorable video clips (just ) and nothing inordinately salacious or sensational about the celebrity that is Ms Keys. Instead, the impact of those first two albums, tempered to some degree by their more commercial, less appealing follow-ups in ‘As I Am’ and ‘The Element of Freedom’, lies in their solidity. In a fortuitous aligning of stars, keys, soul and voice, the RnB and pop worlds found a genuine talent in 2001. ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ has remained inconspicuous in my library all these years because, like scores of other tracks to join it on those first two albums, it is classically, unpretentiously, good.
When it comes to RnB, the likelihood of making something that will last is both bolstered and diminished by the nature of the genre. Given the subject matter so much contemporary RnB now deals with is often exclusively relationship based, lyrical content is usually lowest common denominator and easily accessible. But by the same token, the sheer proliferation of this material makes it that much harder to produce anything that will sound original or stand out from an ever-growing crowd. For Keys, as her adopted moniker would suggest, the piano is her point of difference. In the world of pop, where if you ever see a character slinging a guitar it’s more likely for the aesthetic appeal than for any musical purpose, Keys is a black sheep. While Lady Gaga has been known to , Alicia’s level of musicianship is one rarely matched in the upper echelons of pop aristocracy. On ‘If I Ain’t Got You’, tinkling keys and a lazy drum beat only set the stage for full-bodied horns that imbue the track with that much more earnestness.
The Usher remix is the only one I have on my computer for some reason. For a time, I thought it was the original, so used to hearing the pair duet on . Alas, this was but one take to be released alongside a Kanye West radio mix and a Spanish-language version. The way the upper registers of each artist wrap around each other as the track approaches 1’50″ suggests to me that this is one of those remixes without ulterior motive. Any male RnB artist trying to turn a quick buck early in the new millenium would have jumped at the chance to appear alongside the girl who had won nine Grammy awards by the time she was two LPs into her career but Usher, rather than trying to steal Alicia’s thunder and cash in on it, sounds as though he genuinely likes the song. As opposed to the forced falseness of ‘My Boo’, the sentiment on this one comes off sweet and true. That’s not to take away from Keys’ undoubted abilities; her husky, low, mellifluous tones make me remember 2004 again – before Minaj got involved, when the girl was really still .
Alicia Keys – If I Ain’t Got You