Growing up in rural Australia, naturally Vegemite was my main spread. Less expectedly however, it was R&B that was my main squeeze. Against all environmental norms this music that originated in black America spoke more than any other to a young white boy in the small-town of Seymour (population: 6,000 people). I think we can all agree this irrefutably puts the nature vs nurture argument to rest once and for all. Even through my ‘cool’-teenage-alternative phase I still liked my Hole and Veruca Salt with a sneaky side of Montell Jordan and Groove Theory. Actually, make that a main sized portion of Groove Theory, thanks. Plus seconds.
Back in my day (*rolls eyes* here he goes) we didn’t have the internet, so the charts and entertainment lift outs in newspapers were my only doors into that world. Doors? Well, they were more like mouse holes, really. Still, I managed to burrow my way into the big bad wide world of mainstream music thanks to UK’s Top of the Pops and the most American man in the world, Rick D and his weekly top forty.
Then in 2001 my world had an R&B renaissance, of sorts. There was a new highly-coveted community radio license up for grabs in my adult home city of Melbourne. Needless to say, the competition was fierce and we were all temporary winners. Especially me, because as part of the trial there was a WHOLE FREAKIN’ FREQUENCY dedicated to my beloved urban grooves. This new, albeit temporary era of radio gave me new music and with it a renewed lease on what I understood life to (R&)Be. Those mouse holes basically became double bi-fold doors leading to the biggest veranda with the most major sound system you’ve ever seen.
Between 112 droppin’ their tops in the parking lot and getting crunk and having fun up in that dancerie with MJB, I found the words and sounds of Jill Scott, and the soul-s of India.Arie and Angie Stone. Plus, it took my love for Aaliyah to an immortal level. We Need a Resolution is still one of the boldest and best songs of all time. That 2001 was also the year Aaliyah died absolutely makes it a bitter sweet one.
And while we’re talking about best songs ever, 2001 was also the year that ushered in Ms Alicia Keys with her instant classic, Fallin’. I first heard Fallin’ around the same time I finally got access to the internet. This meant I could literally play music anytime without having bought the CD. Oh wait, right, you know how the internet works by now. But seriously, in 2001 for me THIS WAS WILD. If I was a moth, Alicia on the internet was my flame. I compulsively watched the video through what felt like a constant 56% buffering on dial up internet (ignore that if you were born after 1990, you don’t even know half the struggle) and it was still the most magical thing ever.
Although this was Alicia Keys’ first song (and never mind that she was only 20 years old – actually, do mind, because we’ll get to that), in hindsight Fallin’ still tells us everything we ultimately need to know about her. Wise and talented beyond her years, indulges in the dramatic but only when it’s dripping in the kind of sophisticated maturity us neurotic lay folk could only dream of, and that she was a classical old soul who had an ear for the classical and old soul. Fallin’ quite geniusly samples It’s a Man World, after all.
Alicia and many of her contemporaries at the time took inspiration from the old-but-new sound of the neo-soul movement championed by Erykah Badu and D’Angelo only a few years earlier. She kept the quality, originality and credibility of that genre yet smoothed out the edges to give it a more commercial appeal.
That ‘smooth vs edgy’ difference could have been a result of Alicia Keys being 20 years young when she released her debut album Songs in A Minor, compared to Erykah Badu’s 26 years also quite-young when she released the literally incomparable and game changing Baduizm. Or more likely it’s influenced by Alicia Keys having been a child piano prodigy and Erykah Badu never binding herself to any sort of such rules or discipline.
At that same 20 years of age, our former piano prodigy wrote, produced and arranged Fallin’ and did the same or at least shared those duties on (almost) every other track on Songs in A Minor. By comparison, at 20 years old I was working in a law firm’s mail room where my favourite memory is bouncing on hydraulic chairs to Say My Name by Destiny’s Child with my colleagues while folding, sealing and sorting envelopes.
Sixteen years after ruling the airwaves, Fallin’ is still ruling my earwaves.
From the acapella opening (I keep on fallin’ … i-iiii-iiii-iiii-n), joined shortly after by the simple acoustics of the piano (n out o’ la-ave, with a-you) to the first time you hear the dark, almost unruly gospel (some-times I … LOVE YA) to the balancing that ultimately become the song’s theme (sometimes you make me blue).
For every fallin’ ‘in love’ action there’s an opposing fallin’ ‘out of love’ reaction. That’s the song’s gritty undercurrent that pulls you from side to side the whole way through. Her voice, oh, her voice. Clearly Alicia has the pipes of an eternal angel, but it’s the perfect-imperfections in her voice that have always been her trademark and given her a rawness that sets her apart. Her recorded voice has more of the bumps and kicks of someone singing live. Much like her commitment last year to no longer wearing make-up, she embraces the natural.
Since Fallin’, Alicia Keys has released many other classics in my book. The Diary of Alicia Keys is actually my favourite album of hers, with the blissful sadness of If I Ain’t Got You and the optimism of You Don’t Know My Name (the song that first introduced me to its producer, Mr Kanye West #important).
Then there’s No One, Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart, Unthinkable (I’m Ready), and of course her turn with Usher on My Boo and Jay-Z on their home town shout out, Empire State of Mind. I also loved her latest album, Here. Yet, Fallin’ still feels like the pinnacle in many respects. It was such a powerful entrance.
Alicia Keys music may feel a little earnest at times but she is a woman with impeccable morals and an appreciation and gratitude of her own intellect. She has always made music that’s true to herself first, that’s why it works.
I am a big fan of romance in music and there’s no one in the modern era who delivers for me what Alicia Keys does. An unbridled, knowing-but-somehow-still-innocent kind of love and emotion that harks back to the traditions of groups like the Supremes. Her music could literally exist in any era, and that’s why it’s so cool.