Given the success of 2001’s Songs in A Minor (five Grammy Awards and a No. 1 position on the Billboard 200), Alicia Keys’ deep breath of fresh air in an airtight music industry proved to be more than the birth of another talented artist, but a changing of the guard.
A gifted student of music, the NYC native used her classical piano training as a way out of Hell’s Kitchen’s jowls. At 14, music labels began to pay attention to the talented pupil, including Columbia Records, but it was MBK Entertainment with Jeff Robinson that signed Keys to a fruitful contract. Keys continued to refine her talents with Robinson as her manager. The music executive’s brother was Keys’ vocal coach at the time and introduced the pair during one of their sessions. Seeing the potential that could be turned into one of music’s impactful artists, Robinson and Keys entered a lengthy period of artist development that eventually led to the debut of Songs in A Minor.
The soundscape, which boasted crowd-pleasing tunes like “Girlfriend,” “A Woman’s Worth,” and “Fallin’,” proved to be Columbia’s loss and Keys’ gain. Accolades galore, the best-selling album placed Keys on the right musical track. Now, it was time to recreate that magic for her next studio effort.
Within a year where No. 1 hits softened the distinction between hip-hop and R&B (“All I Have” by Jennifer Lopez and LL Cool J, “Crazy In Love” by Beyonce and JAY-Z), Alicia sought to sprinkle a little something extra on her 2003 sophomore album, The Diary of Alicia Keys (J Records). From its intro, “Harlem’s Nocturne,” it was clear what type of sound and content laid ahead. Keys’ implementation of the grittiest boom-bap beat while catching listeners off guard with her classically-trained ear and affection for ‘70s soul music proved to be the tactic for triumph.
In a 2003 Rolling Stone interview, Keys publicized the best piece of advice she received at that point in her career. Referring to her musicianship, instrumentalist Van Hunt said, “all you need is three chords and the truth.” Since that teaching moment, Keys became even more intimate with her piano on Diary. With her trusty keyboard in tow, she allowed her black-and-white chords to launch a number of poignant songs on the project from “If I Ain’t Got You” to “Feeling U, Feeling Me.”
She was in a peculiar position that most artists, especially one with a lot riding on her abilities for a follow-up hit album, don’t get to attain until they’ve proven their worth on multiple occasions. The liberation she found on her debut was not hard to grip for her sophomore follo-up, proving once again that creators need the space to create for the sake of art, not for the sake of big-wig demands.
To put that experience into perspective, producers, songwriters, and executives discuss how they helped Alicia Keys defeat the sophomore slump, manipulating sounds and instruments to create the unthinkable, and outlining The Diary of Alicia Keys’ 15-step crash course on how to blend hip-hop, classical, R&B, and soul.
Bounding The Pages Of The Diary of Alicia Keys
From legendary hip-hop producers to engineers with a one-of-a-kind knack for scouting the best instruments, crafting The Diary of Alicia Keys proved to be more of a passion project than a daunting, laborious task.
Ann Mincieli (Engineer): We started working on the album at the end of 2002. There were two engineers, myself and another guy by the name of Tony Black, and we went to a studio downtown in Tribeca named Kampo Studio. We really camped out there for almost a good year, making the record in two rooms, just trying to stay away from the hustle and bustle and away from the “it” kind of studios that you have to bump into a lot of people. I figured it was important for her to focus. She felt pressure in outdoing her first record. She got all of these accolades and people waiting for her to make her second record and establish herself, put a staple in the music industry. She locked herself off and never came out of the studio. We worked seven days a week on that record in two rooms. We had some great musicians like Steve Jordan, Wah Wah Watson, and D’Wayne Wiggins. We really were able to tap into this trend of being retro-futuristic, which I think is the reason why people love her. She can be very modern but really capture the old fashion ways of recording in a modern setting. We tapped into using drum machines, live drummers, keyboards, and we really dove in. We probably worked on close to 90 songs for that record and we narrowed it down to 12 to 15 tracks.
Kerry “Krucial” Brothers (Executive Producer): I think it was mid or late-’97, she got a deal with Columbia Records. We always kept in touch and spoke about how’s it going with the new deal. She didn’t like who the label was pairing her with to make the songs. She didn’t feel comfortable or like she had enough control. She was like, “I don’t like what I’m doing with them. I like what we do.” I was like, “Oh, I’m flattered.” She was like, “No seriously. I want you to stop everything you’re doing and help me with this album.” I said yes because I believed in her and I always thought she was really talented but I came from a hip-hop background. Under my breath, I’m like, “Oh my God, what did I just say?” (Laughs) She’s on a major label, this is an R&B album. I don’t know if I could really do this. I’ve never done R&B. But, I just jumped out the window and said yeah, let’s do it. That’s how it started. We would pull out our favorite albums we liked and we would read the credits like this is a guitar pattern and this is a Wurlitzer. “What is a Wurlitzer? I don’t know, let’s find out and get one.” It was a learning process for both of us.
Tony Black (Recording Engineer): I started working with Alicia almost exclusively as her recording engineer in early 2000. Songs in A Minor had already come out. I actually didn’t know who she was yet. “Fallin” hadn’t really hit yet. She was working on a song for a soundtrack for Dr. Dolittle with Eddie Murphy and wanted to experiment with doing layered background vocals. The A&R on the project was Rani Hancock from J Records. She knew that I had a ton of experience doing layered background vocals. She hooked me and Alicia and Kerry up to do a session. We just hit it off and we started working exclusively with each other from there, it had to be like early to mid-2000. Then all of a sudden “Fallin” went to number one. I remember calling Rani up and going, “Hey you didn’t tell me this girl was this big a deal.” Like, I didn’t know. It totally blew up. Then we started working together on all of her various projects whether they were songs for her or things that she was producing for other artists.
Andre Harris (Producer): I believe I was working on Usher’s Confessions album at the time and I want to say we crossed paths in the studio. Long story short, we ended up getting in the studio for three days and Alicia was really into me and my partner’s sound, Vidal, at the time [as Dre & Vidal]. We made program beats, but we also played live instruments: drums, keys, guitar, which she loved. Then we had a small jam session where she played keys and we messed around with instruments.
Carolyn Williams (EVP Marketing, RCA Records): I was a fan the moment I heard “Fallin’” from her first album. I was assigned her project at J Records when she was working on her second album, The Diary Of Alicia Keys, and I’ve been in awe of her ever since. She’s my poster-child for work ethic.
Easy Mo Bee (Producer): It’s interesting working with Alicia because she’s not a submit-a-track-to-her type of artist. She wants to sit down with you first. She wants to talk, shoot ideas around. She has a vision. She’ll sit and tell you what she’s aiming for, what she’s trying to do and then after that, you’re both working together, but through improvisation. You come up with a creation with her. A lot of artists just have you throw a track at them and they go in the booth and you have no idea what they’re going to do to it. They go in and start dropping verses. Then later you’re like “Oh…” But with Alicia, you become a part of the creation and you know all along what’s happening because she’s there with you every step of the way. That’s the part that I enjoyed about working with her. I was just there to see what was going to happen because with her you have to follow her lead and travel along with her. That’s the way she works.
Black: The first record [Songs in A Minor] was done in a bunch of different studios with a bunch of different producers all around the country and it was recorded over a few years. So it had no continuity. When you listen to it, it sort of sounds like every record sounds different than each other whereas she wanted to go for something that had more of a connective sound, like song to song. She didn’t want it to be a mish mosh of different influences as far as production and studios. She wanted that continuity.
Mincieli: It was like a collaboration between me and Alicia. I’m trying to paint the story that she has in her head and all the pieces of gear and plug-ins and guitars and amplifiers and instruments are crayons in our crayon box. It’s colors on a palette. I ask her what her vision is for each song and we paint away. We paint the sonic palette and I have to follow her lead. Sometimes I experiment and I bring things to the table maybe [something] she would have never thought of and sometimes that leads to, “Oh wow, I like this part” and you play a sound that leads to a song. That’s what music is. It’s a collaboration of masterful minds where you could hear colors and see sounds.
Mo Bee: I remember coming into the studio, and this particular session was the first time I showed up. I didn’t know what the studio was going to be like, what she was going to be dressed like. I walked in and the first time that I got there, she had on a baseball cap cocked to the side. She had on Timbs, the strings untied. She was just mad comfortable. And I was like that’s it, we’re going to get some work done here. She’ll automatically make you feel comfortable. You have to think, Alicia is like an R&B queen, an R&B princess. People always looked at her greatly for her singing and accomplishments and then you come into the studio and she got the fitted cap on, the Timbs untied, like “Yo, what up Mo Bee?” and she just made me feel really comfortable. At that point, I knew that we were going to get along and it was going to be easy to get things done. Never at any point did we clash or disagree and she’s not a controller. She’s open to ideas that you may have like the time-stretching idea [on “If I Was Your Woman/Walk On By”]. At the last minute, I got the idea to time-stretch the sample so that it follows the same chord and melody changes of the Gladys Knight’s “If I Were Your Woman” record. That was my idea at the last minute and she was cool with it. She went right along with it. Overall she’s one of the most down to Earth people that I ever worked with.
Black: We didn’t use auto-tune on the album at all. That was one of her big stipulations, “I don’t want any of that.” Not for the crazy Akon stuff or whatever, but just for even gentle pitch correction, she didn’t want any of that. She felt it took away from the feel, which she’s all about. That’s 99 percent of Alicia’s thing; it’s whether it feels good or whether it doesn’t feel good.
Mixing And Mastering A Fusion Of Hip-Hop, R&B And Classical Music
While Alicia found her footing in classical music, thanks to her piano training, she also had an ear for mixing hip-hop and R&B stems that ultimately created her signature sound.
Peter Edge (CEO/Chairman, RCA Records): Alicia, Kerry, and Ann started to dig deep on different instruments, sounds, finding new gear and re-discovering older gear. Around that time they started to utilize that on the recording. I think that’s why those records sound so layered and interesting, because there’s a lot that went into them. There was nothing cookie-cutter about what she was doing there. They created original sounding production that was passionately put together. It was something that they had made like home-cooking.
Harris: It was a different kind of music going on [at the time]. You had a lot of hip-hop still going on, Usher R&B going on, and there was only one Alicia Keys at the time. She had her own identity, own sound, and I think that [Diary] was really a quality album for her. It showed growth coming from the album before just as far as song quality. It was a good graduation album. After coming off tour, she was singing better, her songs got better, the production was better [on this album].
Mo Bee: She has a lot of classical tones in her music, too. I think a lot of that comes from her accomplished teaching of the piano. She just finds ways to snake that stuff in there and before you know it, it’s mixed together with the soul, jazz, hip-hop and you just go along with it because that’s Alicia.
Brothers: We both love Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, all of the influences we sampled or worked with later on. We both loved Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Miles Davis, Isaac Hayes. These were all our inspirations so it wasn’t difficult to relate to each other. We both had the same taste in music. I learned more about melodies and keys and things like that from her and song structure. I remember the first time we wrote a song together and we had four bars done, she was like, “OK good, we’ve got enough,” and I’m like “We got enough?”’ And she’s like “Yeah when I sing it with the melody, that’s all the lyrics we need.” It was just like a perfect match.
Jeff Robinson (Former Manager): She grew up on both genres. She grew up on hip-hop and she grew up on classical with those piano classes she used to do when she was a child. Then her producing partner, Krucial, was also a former rapper. He was heavy into hip-hop. Since he was heavy into hip-hop she got even more into hip-hop and then he would come in with an idea and blend it together with what she did. That’s how you got that blend. She just became a master of it. He was one of those old-school hip-hop heads. “The first rap record started in…” he was one of those guys. It was a good combination.
C. Williams: The hip-hop and the R&B consumer were one in the same at the time. It made sense to appeal to both with this album.
Edge: The thing about her music at that time felt very honest. At a time when there’s not a lot of production going on, a lot of manufactured music, her music felt real. She put together real instruments and hip-hop production styles and married the two. There was a sense of the past and where her roots were but she was making something that was of that time, looking back, and bringing it to the future. I think that was, to me, what characterized that album and made it feel like something you wanted to live with, something really sincere.
Robinson: She stood out from her peers because there was always, in those days, an air of mystery and mystique around Alicia. If you remember they would always say, “Who’s hotter, Alicia or Beyonce?” and it would go back and forth for years. It wasn’t a very healthy competitive thing for both camps. We were all friends at the end of the day and that’s when we did the Verizon Ladies First Tour. It was a beautiful thing and the fact that Alicia was able to play the piano so well and she was able to emote the passion of her songs behind that piano and you felt what she was singing, it was piercing through the other artists. It was also males, not just ladies, who were singing over hip-hop loops. That’s not something we were doing. We were going into our bag. Who would have ever thought we would’ve went out there and performed with Ray, Goodman & Brown, the Main Ingredient on the background? Those are classic dude. And bringing back talking in the middle of a record, like making a phone call. Like the old “Woman to Woman”: “Hey Shirley, this is Barbara. You may not know me but…” She did that on “You Don’t Know My Name.” We were just thinking outside the box. It was going to where the people lived and what they felt and living in their space, their world.
Edge: The [Diary] songs were very much about her life and experiences and the album was called The Diary because it was personal. So to have it turn into a bigger production with lots of features, it was more intimate than that. I think she was much more interested in invoking the Roberta Flacks, the Stevie Wonders than doing something that felt like a big production.
Robinson: Peter Edge constantly sent Alicia music from eclectic artists like African artists, European artists, sounds of Brazil, sounds of Spain. She would take that and absorb the knowledge of the sounds of these different artists and different musical creations and then she would incorporate it into her own. While we were on the road touring Songs in A Minor, she was already thinking about Diary and writing songs that made sense. She always wanted to remain soulful.
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15 Years ago today we released this Album on my MBK/J Records label #diaryofaliciakeys and it seems like Yesterday.. @aliciakeys @iammrbrothers @thepeteredge @anntasticlv what an incredible moment in music we created .. Blessed to be a part of it all .. 🙏🏾 I’ve so many random facts i could post about this album and maybe i will today or someday. A classic
Edge: From the moment I met Alicia, I would send her these mixtapes of different music that she would use or find interesting or inspiring to have around. It’s not like she ever took anything directly from those mixtapes, but I think like anybody hearing inspiring, different, cool music it can spark something sometimes. Nothing literal like, “We took a sample from here,” but it’s always cool to hear different things. I put some Brazilian music on there. I had Fela Kuti on there, all of these different things that were not common, not stuff that you heard everywhere.
Brothers: [No features] was done on purpose because from the first album to this album we wanted to make it clear that it was about Alicia. That she was the full package. Any of the features we had, like we did our own version of Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind” [“The Streets Of New York” later featured on Alicia Keys’ Unplugged album] where we sampled the DJ Premier beat. She came up with the song and we put it out on a mixtape [Vol. 3 The Reign, 2003] in between the album. We thought it would be dope to get Nas on this because it’s a Nas record. Nas did it and we were honored. Then I was like Rakim is a scratch in the sample, it would be dope to have Rakim on this. Reached out and Rakim did it, so we had features on remixed records but it didn’t make the album because we felt like, “Ok, we don’t want people to pick it up for Nas and Rakim.” It didn’t really make any album, but it’s out there floating somewhere. Just the fact that we were the first people to get Nas and Rakim ever on a record together was amazing and we did it from a mixtape idea. There were people who she loved and she didn’t have any problem having features, but for the album, it was definitely like we want the world to get to know who she is. It was like who is this girl that just blew up from nowhere? It’s the second album, we’re going to keep it about her. Matter of fact, we’re going to call it The Diary album. You’re going to learn who she is.
Defying The Sophomore Jinx
After the success of Songs in A Minor, it was time for A. Keys to prove her staying power. Creative freedom granted her the ability to operate on her own time and concoct music that not only her fans would appreciate, but tunes that she would one day hang her hat on.
Brothers: When [Songs in A Minor] came out it was just big surprises all around. I’m still working a job and it drops and people are hitting me like “Congratulations! The album is No. 1.” I’m like “What? You’re funny.” And then it’s like “Oh damn it is No. 1.” Then everything went so fast and grew so quickly. Then it was like “Oh sh*t, we better figure out what we’re doing for real now.” (Laughs) It was a little intimidating but at the same time, it was a boost of confidence.
Robinson: Songs in A Minor allowed us to tour for a couple of years and of course in this day and age you can’t do that anymore because they consume music so fast you have to keep putting music out. You can’t stay on the road for two years touring like we used to do back in the day. It took maybe eight months to a year to try to get that together. But it was well worth it. I always have the philosophy when we put out records that it was important for you to hit with your own people first. To resist the temptation to skip over Urban and go straight to crossover record is something I never believed in and I made sure the team stood by it. We would have like a “You Don’t Know My Name” go first before “If I Ain’t Got You.” That crossed over, but “You Don’t Know My Name” had all the black and Latino folks from the urban areas 100 percent behind that record. If you noticed, all of Alicia’s albums that I did were in that formula. Get with your own people first. You know “If I Ain’t Got You” is the bigger record, don’t go with that first. Go with the setup. Give it to urban folks. Let them know that we’re still rocking together, we’re down, we’re cool then we’ll spread our wings.
C. Williams: None of her musical contemporaries were doing the same thing she was. Not her style or her musical abilities. We just continued to let her be her and knew that everything else would fall in line.
Brothers: During the time we definitely loved what we did and I didn’t think everybody would get it right away because of the setbacks with Columbia and them not understanding it because it was unique for its time. It was a combination of hip-hop, jazz, R&B, classical, and soul, but it was a new combination of it. It didn’t sound like Mary J. Blige, it didn’t sound like Erykah Badu, it didn’t sound like Missy Elliott. After that, people would ask “How do you feel about the second album? Are you worried about the sophomore jinx?” And we never had that, there was never any of that pressure. We did what we wanted to do the first album, let’s just do it again and let’s try this new stuff we learned too. That was the main thing because during each album process we didn’t listen to any of the current music or radio. We just always tuned it out and went back to our favorite classic albums and used that for inspiration. We had the confidence because a lot of artists that get that “sophomore jinx” are people who didn’t have control over their first album. If that first album did well they were finally allowed to do what they wanted to do which might have been different from what the label might have wanted them to do to get attention. Alicia didn’t have to go through that. She had creative control from the jump. Of course, we had gotten better and we had grown, me as a producer, her as a producer, even songwriting, so for the second album it was back to business. We just upgraded a little more equipment and finally bought a couple of real instruments.
Robinson: Initially at that time, you’re talking the ‘90s, people weren’t taking female artists as serious as they should have where female artists knew exactly what they wanted and they played and wrote their songs. A lot of those times they would give you a song; “Here’s the single, sing the song. Learn the song, when you’re ready, go in the booth. Just sing.” But Alicia had ideas. When she was a little kid, she would come up with ideas and deep songs, but it took awhile for people in a male-dominated business to accept that she could compete with the males. They weren’t giving her a real shot.
Harris: I commend any woman who has the ability to foresee their vision as an artist and as a musician. It’s tough out here being a creative person, one, and being a woman, which I understand. Women go through a lot as artists and having the ability to be creative. A lot of the record companies dictate who they want you to work with and what they want you to sound like so for her to take a stand in her identity, I commend her. It’s strong, dope and I’m a producer myself so I know what it takes, the battles you have to deal with as far as creating and being a producer. Also, for her to have a project where she opens up for collaboration, that takes a lot to be open to work with other people and learn other people and create in other ways that you’re not used. That simple growth and greatness come from collaborations. If you’re a house builder and you can build a house yourself, it’s magic when you have a window or floor specialist come in. It makes the house even more special and unique. It’s the same way as building songs and producing a song when you can call in other people to help bring your vision to life, do an excellent job and paint colors that you would never paint yourself, which is part of the collaboration process and the pay off of collaborating. For her to be classically trained and get with hip-hop producers, I think that is what gave the album a really good sound sonically. It wasn’t so musical that it was considered a jazz album or adult contemporary. It had some jazz, classical, but also hip-hop elements too.
We had the confidence because a lot of artists that get that “sophomore jinx” are people who didn’t have control over their first album. If that first album did well they were finally allowed to do what they wanted to do which might have been different from what the label might have wanted them to do to get attention. ~ Kerry Brothers
Edge: At that time, she had a very special place in R&B and hip-hop culture. She caught the hearts of many people and her record was very soulful. She felt like somebody to the community that had a very distinct place and a distinct message. I remember it being extremely important in terms of what that meant to everybody at that time. She was in a unique place with who she was, the kind of music she was making and the popularity. She had broken out and gained a big audience but really had a perspective that worked in many different communities, but certainly in the R&B and hip-hop world.
Black: We were really heading into the one track at a time thing going on with artists where albums were disappearing in popularity. It was all about a single or a song here and there. I really felt like when I got done listening to it like, “Wow, we might not do this again” as far as making a real album. The industry started to change so much where you couldn’t get that type of crew together anymore because the budgets were decreasing, the talent pool was decreasing as far as mixers, engineers, and producers. It’s hard to describe but it was definitely a moment that we knew we weren’t going to do again. A big studio, there isn’t that many to even be in anymore. Kampo is no longer there. It wasn’t long after that that everything as far as that way of doing things was done. Kampo was a big room by today’s standards. It was a traditional recording studio with a big live room, control room, and a couple of booths. A lot of records now are made in something the size of a hotel room. That was the feel that I got out of it, that we created something with continuity that had an actual album feel and also that we might not do it again.
Robinson: I remember one day [there was] a producer who will remain nameless…Alicia was trying to give ideas and input on a song and he was just shutting her down. “Yo man, I’m such and such. I’m a Grammy-nominated” this-that-whatever-whatever, basically “I’ve seen your type come and go. Sit down, shut up and sing the song.” She came and told me and I got upset. She was crying. I’m like we’re going to fix this. Let me figure this out. [After that experience] she began to ask a lot of questions. “What does this machine do? How do you stack those vocals? How do you this, how do you do that?” Secretly without me knowing about it, she was going out and buying the equipment from the studio sessions, putting it into her house and practicing what she was learning in the studio from the guys. With Krucial, she would go in there and learn the joint. She came to my house one day and said, “What do you think of this song?” I was like, “Wow this song is dope. Who did this song?” She’s like, “Me.” I’m like, “You did this song?” She was like, “Yeah.” It was “Fallin’” which is a big hit. She told me what she did and at first, we were at Columbia at the time, I had to say that I was doing it because if they knew it was her they wouldn’t give it a shot. They said, “This is dope,” then I revealed to them that she did it all. The legend became reality.
Co-creators reveal the facts behind the album’s songs: including why the unsmiling “Nobody Not Really” deviated from the previous songs about love, how Alicia Keys’ alter-ego Lellow was created, memories of a young and hungry Kanye West, and how a star was born after being featured on “Diary.”
Mincieli: It was the last song that was done on the record.
Brothers: That song, to me, embodies the sound she and I create together. It comes in with a classical piece, hip-hop drums, harmonies, and vibes. She’s really big on harmonies and stacking them, which I was so impressed by. It was a nice representation, a fun intro. It was a great introduction to tune people’s ears on how to listen to the album.
Black: The making of the album had run into the promotional tour for the album. We had to go to Amsterdam, Paris, and England to finish while she was doing a promotional tour. We still weren’t finished when we got back to New York for mastering. While they were mastering I finished up “Harlem’s Nocturne” in the studio at the Hit Factory. We were mastering at the Hit Factory. I was upstairs with Kerry and Alicia and I worked with them on that intro where everything was playing backward while she’s talking and then it ends up and then it goes into the beat. That backwards-sounding thing was Alicia’s idea along with Kerry and they just basically said to me we want it to sound crazy like everything is sucking backward. I experimented with a few things on the computer and that was it. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to decide on a million other ideas. A lot of the way we worked on the album was as soon as we were happy with something we just moved on rather than recording seven versions of a song. The interesting thing about “Harlem’s Nocturne” was that even though it was the first thing that you hear it was the last thing we finished.
Robinson: She was a big fan of Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes who we worked with on “Rock Wit U” on [Songs in A Minor] and the whole Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra and how those intros used to sound with so many instruments, and huge string sections that made the song feel bigger. It made it feel like it’s the backdrop of a fantastic movie from the ‘70s and blaxploitation movies like Shaft and Superfly. Back in those days, that’s the sound we were seeking to capture.
Brothers: It was a track I had for a rapper at the time who was trying to use it and he never finished it. Just like, “This track is whatever” and it’s so funny because he said, “I want to do more stuff like…” He had something where young artists do…they want to copy what’s hot. He said something about the track like, “You should do more beats like so and so” and I was like “What? Really?” For me, it was like you know what? I’m giving this track to Alicia, see what she do to it. I was inspired by classical music so I knew she would like it. I was experimenting with strings and messing around with the keyboard to add something to that violin line. Like a movie score. Then the melody and lyrics came to me, “What goes around comes around, what goes up must come down.” Taneisha [Smith], who was one of Alicia’s old partners from her girl group back in the day, came in and co-wrote the verses with us. It was like a no-brainer, it didn’t take long to write.
Black: That track goes back to 2000. It disappeared for a couple of years. I had done the original one with Kerry and when we started working on the album all of a sudden he was like, “We’re going to work on this track, Alicia’s doing it.” I don’t remember what the original title was. It was a rap track and some guy had written something else to it and I was like, “Wow, alright.” I knew it as a rap tune. We put it up and she started singing all the parts to it and just came together. I was shocked. It completely went in a different direction from the song that I originally knew that we had put together and then it becomes popular which really surprised me because it came out of nowhere. It seemed like a song that had disappeared three years ago and became resurrected by her.
Taneisha Smith (Songwriter): It was just Krucial and I at first because the way that Alicia works she’s a workaholic. She would always have like three different rooms working on three different songs at the same time. She’s a beast. I believe she was in another room working on something else while Kerry and I worked on “Karma.” That song was inspired by what I was going through personally. The person that I was dealing with at the time was like, “Is this song about me?” “Yes it is, haha.” I was probably about eight months pregnant in the booth recording that. All of us ate, slept, drank, lived in the studio. It was an amazing time. It all worked, flowed, it was magic.
Brothers: I knew she liked classical and I liked a lot of classical music and the beat had this classical line in it and it was one of those things where you’re humming a melody like, “This sounds like something going around, coming back around.” How can we make the classic saying, “what goes around comes around” in this song?” Sometimes I would come up with concepts and song ideas with the track, sometimes she would come with everything like how could we make this better? How can we make this complete? How can we get the arrangement where it’s exciting? And it was intuitive because we’ve been working so long. A lot of things were intuitive. We didn’t have to speak much. That one, in particular, was amazing because there was no singing on that whatsoever. She clearly had heard it with the rapper on it and for her to be able to clear her mind of all of that and just go “I’m going to write to this” and create a song was pretty crazy. Even her little rap thing she does in the breakdown, it’s nothing like the rapper did. There was nothing influenced by that version that came to the result that we got.
Smith: When it became a single, I was all in mommy world so I don’t think I was paying attention to it until the check came (Laughs) and I said, “Oh, this is what having a single looks like.” I got an ASCAP Award for it. When I would hear the reaction from it, it always blew me away. I would hear people say, “That was my favorite song.” I remember when I had a down moment, my baby was a few months old. I had a lot going on. We were surviving domestic violence, now survivors. I left my daughter with my sister and I went to One Fish Two Fish to get a drink. Someone put “Karma” on a jukebox and the whole place started going crazy, singing it word for word. I was sitting there tripping because it gave me hope, it was my dreams coming true. Having a single and then a Keyshia Cole single [“I Just Want It To Be Over”] right after that was my light at the end of the tunnel. Those singles back to back were a tremendous blessing. It allowed me as a single mother with no village to be able to be with my daughter, for years, and raise her. I wasn’t able to be a studio rat anymore so having “Karma” as a single and then receiving an award for it was my dreams being realized, coming into fruition, and a huge blessing. And still to this day continues to bless us.
Black: We did it in Miami with Timbaland. We went down there and tried working on something with Missy Elliott also, then we switched over. After we did something with her that didn’t make the album, we worked with Timbaland on “Heartburn” and we recorded that one down there. Timbaland and his mixer finished it. We did all of the recording down there and they finished it.
Brothers: The influence on that was how do we make it sound like those old ‘60s, “It’s like a heatwave burning in my soul.” That was the inspiration of where the lyrics should go on “Heartburn.” Hence why the background was the way it was. Technically some of this was ‘60s influenced like “If I Was Your Woman.” We also liked the late ‘60s.
“If I Was Your Woman/Walk On By”
Mo Bee: I had no idea what Alicia had in mind, what she intended to do. I believe we had a short conversation on the phone because I remember her telling me, and at first, of course, I was like “You want some tracks from me? You want me to submit some tracks?” She said, “I actually want to go into the studio and we improvise and work on it together.” She said, “I have an idea to re-work the Isaac Hayes “Walk On By” track that you did for Biggie. But I want that for R&B for my album.” So we went in the studio and I started with the drums. Then I chopped up Isaac Hayes’ “Walk On By” and she and D’Wayne Wiggins from Tony! Toni! Toné! who was on guitar on the song, stood by and watched me chop up the samples and get the drums right and everything.
Brothers: That was a great experience in the studio, starting out the remake, doing the classical feel and just going into that vamp at the end which is definitely ‘70s inspired. Records used to be 15, 20 minutes long, and we left it open too, hoping a rapper would sample it and use it but maybe they will get to it soon (Laughs).
Mo Bee: At that point, she got on the piano and started to add the chords and stuff. It really started to come together because D’Wayne had a Wah-Wah pedal and once he put that Wah-Wah pedal onto the track mixed together with her adding the chords on the piano I was like this is really, really coming together, much more than I ever envisioned it to be. Something really interesting also happened in the studio and it was at the last minute, off the cuff. First of all, this was also a remake of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman.” It’s not a straight melody. It has changes. The melody, the tone, and notes of the song dip. At the last minute I asked the engineer, “Do you have time-stretching in here? Can we time-stretch something on the board?” They can do that with this thing called Harmonizer. “Can you put the Harmonizer on my sampler? On the SP-1200? The same chord changes that happen in Gladys Knight’s ‘If I Were Your Woman,’ can we do that to the sample?’ And he said, “Yeah!” If you listen to Alicia’s “If I Was Your Woman” you can hear the Isaac Hayes going (starts mimicking the bass line). Especially the hip-hop producers that know the process of what it takes to make beats — if they sat back and listened to that they would say, “How did he do that?” Mind you, on top of that, Alicia’s following with the piano chords. She’s doing the same chords from the Gladys Knight song and D’Wayne is on guitar with the Wah-Wah pedal. I was like, “This is crazy!” Just the way it was all coming together. It was amazing to me. As far as the sampling approach to it and the last minute idea that I came up with for time-stretching the sample, what happened on that record as far as sampling rarely happens. Not too many producers access that feature of time-stretching. A reference of where that has happened is Mary J. Blige’s “You Don’t Have To Worry.” Shout out to DJ Eddie F who achieved that.
Brothers: “If I Was Your Woman/Walk On By” was a song that was left over from the first album that we never got around to. You want to do it your way and not have the original outdo you. If you’re going to remake a song you better do it well. But the cool thing about it [is] we got a chance to recreate it in a hip-hop form.
Mo Bee: Although I will admit (because I was using the samplers) the drums were quantized meaning it was done to a click. It was electronic. In other words, it wasn’t loose. It’s what they call real time, real feel because a drummer or anybody who plays an instrument is not perfect. That’s what they call real time, you’re going by your own assumption of “I’m keeping the beat, I’m keeping the time here.” Maybe the song that I did with her might have been a lot more different than a lot of the other songs because the drums were programmed. They followed an electronic click. But once she started playing to it, and you hear D’Wayne over there jamming on real live guitar, the thought of program drums goes out the door (Laughs). It sounded like most of her other stuff—a live jam session.
Black: The one interesting thing about that is that we did the vocals one night and they were great. It was maybe a few days later she came in the studio and said, “Put up ‘If I Was Your Woman.’” I said, “OK. “She said, “I want to re-do the second verse, vocal.” I put up the track and got the song up to where it sounds OK so she can sing to it and as I was listening back to it I thought, “Oh my God this second verse is really good.” Just to give you an idea that she’s very receptive to other people’s thoughts, she came in the room, got on the microphone and it’s a very delicate situation when you’re working with a singer to say anything to them about their vocal, particularly if they’re the producer of their own vocal. She came in the room and I was like, “Did you listen to the second verse?” She’s like, “Yeah, why? Is it good?” And I’m like, “It’s really good.” She’s like “Ok let me hear it in here.” She listened back to it and was like, “You’re right, forget it.” And we just moved on to the next song (Laughs). She never actually re-recorded it. She was open enough to listen to someone. She had that trust where she knew I was going to say something that extreme, like are you sure you really want to re-do that? that it was probably a reason. I didn’t often do that. Ninety-nine percent of the time I would just let her vibe and do her thing and stay focused. One of the relationship balances with working with an artist if you’re the engineer is not getting in their way or getting in their head. On the rare occasion I would say, “Hey, the mic popped on that one. We have to re-do this or that,” but all performance issues, unless something really stuck out or I heard something, you have to let them work, otherwise you could totally blow the whole day. That was a funny thing with that song. Obviously it came out great.
“You Don’t Know My Name”
Mincieli: We had Kanye West at the beginning of his career. He was so passionate about music and shared a lot of the same visions musically that we did in terms of making sonic art.
Black: It was the first time that I worked with Kanye. Same for her and we didn’t know Kanye personally. He just came storming in and had this beat, tons of energy. We laid down the beat at Quad. We had finished most of the album and we left Kampo by that time. We had the session at Quad with him and Harold Lily, the lyricist, and we laid down the beat. Basically, he already had it in his MPC when he walked in. Everybody loved it. Granted at this time it was just the beat, so you don’t know what the song is going to be like yet. They wrote it in the studio, Alicia writing 90 percent of it and along with Harold Lily. I don’t think there was a third vocal person. Kanye was in the room like a cheerleader, “That’s good, that’s hot,” he was not involved in the lyrics but he was a producer who was getting his artists amped up. Getting her excited, getting the other co-writer excited and making that all happen. Alicia produced her own vocal even though she was working with Kanye. Even when she’s working with an outside producer like with Timbaland, Kanye, with the guys who did “So Simple,” Dre and Vidal, even though they were doing the beat, she produced her vocals. Generally, if they did even hang out it was to watch her do her thing. That was the same thing with “You Don’t Know My Name.” Then we did the whole thing with the talking and that kind of stuff. I believe they added some strings during the mix session. That was one of the songs I didn’t mix. Manny Marroquin who mixed 60, 70 percent of the record because we were still recording so we had to use for various reasons, he was used as a mixer, someone they were comfortable with. I’m still recording at Quad and Kampo and not so much of the Hit Factory, so we had to keep recording while things were being mixed. I believe they added some strings to that song during the mix or while the mix session was going on, they brought in some string players to layer it up. I didn’t think it was going to be the first single, personally. It was one of those things where you don’t know where all the decisions get made.
Brothers: Kanye was harassing her A&R for a minute. She heard it, liked it and when we came to the studio, him, John Legend… I think this was at Quad Studios. We did some of the New York stuff in Quad as well. He was going by John D. Legend back then and just vibing with young Kanye and sitting there with them and John on background and Alicia there writing the whole talking part on that record. It sounded like we were doing the old joints that used to come on the radio late nights. Harold Lily also sang background and was a co-writer. It was fun concept after concept.
Mincieli: It’s one of those elements of taking old and new and mixing and moshing it all up. It’s what we love about an old school record, making it new again and writing completely new lyrics over it and arrangements. The fun part was the talking part in the middle of the song. It really made the record and it was unexpected. There’s never usually talking on a song that long. It just goes to show you that a song like that can break a lot of boundaries and there are no rules and formulas at the end of the day. Sometimes we get caught up in formulas and rules and that song breaks the barriers. You can say it doesn’t matter, there could be talking in a song. It still got played on every radio station. That was the beauty of it. “You can’t have a guitar solo or the intro can’t be four bars long or you have to have drums.” Look at Adele’s “Someone Like You.” It has no drums on it but it got played on every radio station. There’s probably a million A&Rs these days that will argue why a song needs drums on it or else it’s not going to be played on radio and I think Alicia is one of those artists that fights those boundaries and breaks them.
Robinson: After Kanye got the record started, it was a collection of the conversation in the studio, reminiscing of songs back then and just emphasizing that record of “Woman to Woman” and in-those-days records. “Hey Shirley, this is Barbara. You may not know me but…” It had never been tried in this era. We all just decided to do it and it’s classic. I hear parodies of it all the time.
Edge: That record really had something so unique about it at the time. It was clearly based on a loop of ‘70s soul, The Main Ingredient, but it felt like a cool and interesting way of reinventing soul music. At the time it was completely unique as well. It came out to people like “Oh wow, she did that?” It just caught people. It was such a fresh record and it’s so heartfelt. The video and the spoken part, people weren’t doing that. It was a groundbreaking record and video, which was a key element to it as well.
Smith: I was in the “You Don’t Know My Name” video pregnant. I was supposed to do the second character that Melyssa Ford plays, but I was like “I don’t know, that’s going to be a lot. I’m pregnant, I don’t know if I can do all of that.” We recorded at Pan Pan Diner in Harlem. It was such a staple of Harlem, had been there for a long time and it’s not there anymore. I’m so happy she did that video there because we were always there. When we were recording the first album a couple of blocks away from where the “You Don’t Know My Name” video was taped at, we would be at that particular diner always eating there all the time. I think it’s still a vacant lot to this day. Almost like how Roscoe’s is to L.A., that’s how this diner was for Harlem.
Mincieli: The string section that myself and Manny Marroquin got to record paints the picture and all of the old school background vocals that we did allowed us to tap into some of the old ways of recording and some new concepts like having program loop over a bunch of live strings. We did that at Hit Factory in one of the new rooms. We worked on that song during the blackout of ‘03. We were in six rooms at once finishing the record. For like two days we had to collect all of the drives and get all of the files from studios that were either locked up or closed. The lights were down in Times Square. It was a monumental time.
Brothers: I think it was out for a couple of days, too, so that held things up. Everybody was out in the streets trying to stay cool because it was hot. But there was no real setbacks because I believe we didn’t have a deadline. It was more like we have an idea of when we would like the album turned in so it wasn’t any pressure of this is holding us up. There were no rushes or anything like that.
“If I Ain’t Got You”
Brothers: She had a concept about how people are tripping over materialism. She wanted to write something that was about the love of somebody is all you need. Those types of songs get written fast. The biggest songs never take that long to be written because the inspiration is so fresh and strong that you don’t have to sit there and work it to try to make it better. That was more the attitude of how we always worked. We never tried hard to make a song do something because it never comes out great when you do that.
Mincieli: We had Steve Jordan on drums, a famous guitarist named Hugh [McCracken], and Alicia. It was a trio. I believe the guitarist recently just passed away. That song is filled with emotion and tempos drifting up and down and real musicians. She’s one of the only artists that can do something like that and change what the barriers are and break them.
Brothers: She started at the piano and wrote it. It’s one of those songs that writes itself. It reminds me of an Aretha Franklin type and just wanting to give it chunky drums like how “Fallin” was but not take away from the essence of the piano being the core. That song took a little longer in production of marrying the balance between the live drums and the programmed drums, which is what we did on every record. When the rhythm jumps up to live I would have to take the files and layer on with my drum programming. By this time, I was doing it during the first album, too, but I was really confident in programming drums. Not like your four bar, eight bar loops but more straight through like a drummer. If the drums felt too live I knew how to pull it back and make it sound more programmed or hip-hop. Or if we wanted to make sure it didn’t swing too much to the live, I would program the basic and have a drummer play on top of it or vice versa. That was one that we didn’t want it to sound like your typical ballad. Still wanted to keep that hip-hop edge to it. It was a nice balance of that, but the song was all her.
Black: One memorable thing that happened during that, I was editing drums with Alicia, just her and I sitting in the room one afternoon and power blanked. She was like, “What was that?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I hit save and then it blanked again and then it was off. I said it seemed like the studio lost power. We went outside to the front and that was the beginning of the blackout of 2003. No one thought the power was going to be out for a few days. It was like, “Well, let’s hang out, see what’s going on.” We were on Bond Street. It was very low-key, we’re just sitting around outside, it was hot out. The word started getting out the power was really out. We were such studio freaks that we weren’t going to leave because we were convinced it was just going to come back on and we could start working again. The whole day leads into the night and the next thing you know, the next day you’re like what are we doing here? You couldn’t get out of the city because nothing was working. You couldn’t get gas for your car. I couldn’t get my car out of the lot. It was a scene. And then we just picked up from there and just kept going.
Brothers: Songs like “Diary” started at the piano. She would come up with the melody, concepts, lyrics and I would assist with lyrics being that I came from a rap background. She had the chords, the whole concept of the song, but didn’t have that hook quite down. It eventually worked out and we finally got the hook down. Then we remembered this reminds me of a Tony! Toni! Tone! song, the “Whatever You Want” song. That was the inspiration of her throwing the phone number in the hook.
Robinson: Originally on “Diary,” she had Stokley [Williams], but then I put Jermaine Paul on it. Then we added some gospel elements to it. A lot of that stuff was created from the fact that she had her own studio. She could do trial and error without being on the clock.
Black: It had the sound that we were locking into that was connected to “Diary,” “If I Ain’t Got You,” “Dragon Days,” they all had a vibe. They’re all from that realm and then we finished it out in Amsterdam with the vocal of Jermaine. He was her background vocalist for that promotional tour and he would sing the part that had already been recorded by another artist. I guess it was Stokley. He was doing such a great job live that I brought it up to Alicia and maybe Jeff did also. “Hey, he sounds amazing. Why don’t we put him on the record because he’s going to be on tour with you and the continuity will be there.” He just did a great job, nailed it. It’s always tricky when you’re doing that signature tune for the album, the one that’s going to be the album title which I don’t think anybody knew it was going to be called Diary of Alicia Keys. We weren’t told that until it was coming out.
Jermaine Paul (Singer): Jeff reached out to me because I think Stokley from Mint Condition was on the song and he couldn’t make an AOL Live Session in New York City. Jeff reached out to me to come in and sing the part. I did that for that recording and then I ended up joining her promotional tour as a background vocalist. Right before the album was released, she was doing some final mixing on the album and she asked me to come to the studio. I basically sang the part overseas and that was that.
Stokley Williams (Singer/Musician): What happens is people have a song and within that song there’s a spirit within it that people think fits right in line with your energy, which I think was the case for me. They said we need somebody with that kind of spirit, soulful, or whatever they felt that I had. “I think you would be good for this call-and-response, back-and-forth kind of thing.” However, I think at the same time there were background vocals of an amazing singer named Jermaine Paul and he actually sang the parts that I did. I’m not sure how much of mine ended up, but some of the stuff I did ended up [on the song]. I may have been used as a guide. They felt a certain spirit that I had that matched the song that they were at least going to try and see if it worked out. I came into New York, in a studio there and laid it down. Just come and do your part, hear the vibe of it and fall in line, but it felt good. We singers, musicians, we just do what we do and read the moment, read the spirit of it. If that’s the direction you take, you go and do your thing.
Brothers: It lasted forever. The whole band came out. Tony! Toni! Tone! came out, everybody was mic’d up, drums, guitar, bass, her on piano, a second guitar, and my programming on top of that to make sure it didn’t feel too live. We were looking for that whole call-and-response thing and vamp out for the record. I’m not sure what the reason was but Raphael Saadiq wasn’t around. I don’t know what the situation was with the group, I think he was already doing his solo thing, but we wanted that feel and we tried Stokley from Mint Condition. He did some vocals. It was great but it wasn’t quite right. A little ad-lib or two still made the record. One of those voices at the end was actually Stokley. Alicia was on tour and Jermaine Paul was doing the backgrounds on tour with her already for a while and when they would perform it he would kill it. I think we were actually in Sweden when we did the final vocals for “Diary.” It was like “Yo, let Jermaine do it.” He came in and he put the magic down on it. They’ve been doing it on tour already so it made perfect sense.
Paul: If you took out all of the lyrics in the song and just listened to the music, it feels like a secret, it feels special and intimate. I think that was part of the reason why I was able to sing it the way I did because the music basically sang itself. The song sang itself. I just tried to stay out the way of it and let it do what it’s doing.
S. Williams: I love the way the chords move. It’s like water the way it starts out. It’s real subtle, moody, kind of theatrical and I love the energy of it. It’s really powerful.
Paul: I’ve done a lot of things since but that was one of the coolest things ever. I was on the road as a background vocalist and she was so sweet that she allowed me to come up and stand next to the piano, and in so many ways feature me on the song. It wasn’t like we just did theaters; we were doing arenas. We did every large venue in every state and every country. It was amazing. I got to travel the world I think maybe two or three times over from that record, from that album.
Mincieli: Alicia wrote this on tour. The cool thing about that song is we experimented with a lot of keyboard sounds. The sounds that you hear, including the guitar part, is a fake guitar part. It’s something we made which we were really proud of back in the day. We made it through our keyboard.
Black: Her and Kerry had whipped it up in their pre-production and then we brought in some of the outside musicians she had used, whether it was guys from her band. I think Ronnie Drayton played guitar on that one. It just came together fast. It was part of that sound of what we were doing at that time. I would say there’s like seven or eight songs if you listen to them in a row you could say, “Yeah they all sort of happened at the same time. They all go together.”
Brothers: It was our experiment. [Ronnie Drayton’s] guitar had that soulful rock feel because of the way he was playing. And having those hip-hop drums with the boom-bap. But on the turnaround, I echoed out the snares to make it sound like a big rock arena. It was a lot of fun because it’s something that we never touched on before and the whole concept of the guitar sounding like a dragon. She was on tour for a while and the whole feeling of “I’m out here on tour missing my lover” and it reminds me of a damsel in distress. That’s the concept of the song, “Dragon Days,” dragon for the dragon, but also dragging meaning they were taking too long.
Black: That was everybody’s favorite while we were building everything. It was the one everybody was involved in the session, singing off to the side. We did a big string section with so I really thought at that time they’re putting a lot into this tune as far as effort. This must be slated to be one of the singles. I don’t think it turned out to be one. It stayed as an album track.
Mincieli: The most incredible thing about that song is her tapping into the new and old ways you can do things from having all of these old background singers come in and sing on some of the parts, having string arrangements recorded and mixed with a lot of her hip-hop driven drum patterns. She programmed that song herself on drums. That and “Dragon Days.” The cool thing about when she programs her drums [is that] she does it in a way that’s very hard to copy. She has a very unique swing.
Brothers: That was us going back to our classical feel like from the first album but bringing it up to date. This was the first one where I started using the MPC4000 because for a lot of programming I used the 3000. I had this sample from one of these old records. I played it for her and it inspired a couple of runs from it and I think [George W.] Bush was in office then. It was his first term. Everyone thinks it’s a relationship song but it’s more like using a political standpoint as the relationship. The whole “Wake up baby it’s time for love.” It’s probably hard to remember now with Trump in office, we didn’t think it was going to get worse than Bush. (Laughs) Bush was the first one that made everybody go, what is going on? That’s the whole thing of, “We used to be close as allies in this cold world filled with deception and lies.” It sounded like you were talking about a relationship between a man and a woman, but it’s a metaphor between people and the government. That is like the favorite Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On” type of record, but we put it in metaphorically so people will hear it and accept it more.
“So Simple” feat. Lellow
Harris: Alicia was into the whole sample sound. Blueprint, JAY-Z’s album, was really popular, so that style of production with the hard beat and the live instrumentation sounding like a sample was in at that time. Long story short, we came up with some music, we let Alicia sing and we ended up sampling her. We made a little loop and ended up making a complete track out of it. She wrote some really good lyrics to it and we ended up cutting that song. After we got the groove going (starts mimicking the bass line) we put her vocal in and sped it up a little bit and pitched it up to make it sound really samply. It sounded like we sampled an old school record but it was actually her vocals and my bass and Vidal’s drums. After we got the groove going, she started writing the actual song.
Brothers: Lellow is her alter ego. That was what we called her when she was in her hip-hop mode so it’s dope they recorded her singing in one key and pitched her up to make it sound high-pitched. She got a chance to get that energy out which she’s always been doing on the cassette recordings and mixtapes we used to do back in the days. It was really cool to have her express that on that type of record and they killed the beat. The soulful bass line. That was a dope experience and good energy.
Black: We got to the point where they wanted the vocal to sound like it was sped up or high-pitched. We used a tape deck. I recorded her singing with the tape slowed down and then sped it up to regular speed. That’s how we got that sound. It sounds like it’s sampled but it’s not. We experimented with it a little bit because if you slowed it down too far and then you sped it back up to regular speed it would sound too crazy. We had to experiment to find the exact thing. Right at the very end of the song, you could hear Alicia saying, “Yeah, that’s it right there.” She heard the playback, we had manipulated some stuff and she was singing along with it. I mixed that one in England. Peter Edge was specific in that he wanted it to sound like a 90s hip-hop record. That one has a lower presence to it. A lot of people really love that song. I do too. It had a vibe to it.
Harris: We were just vibing for a minute and that was the first bass line coming out to the drums Vidal was playing. We have a serious chemistry as far as working together. We’ve known each other since childhood. He plays keys and bass and drums, I play drums, bass, guitar, and keys as well. We both switch and swap out instruments and that’s just what the vibe was, where the universe put us that day and that’s the bass line that came out of my vessel. (Laughs) We didn’t have any intentional lines or anything, we were just grooving and she caught a vibe off of it.
Brothers: The whole song is wordplay: “What it is ain’t what it was, what it should be.” It’s one of those songs where it’s like “Man, things are getting complicated. Why can’t it be so simple? Why are things changing?”
Mincieli: It’s a very simple and catchy tune.
Harris: This whole track was more of a hip-hop feel which someone could rap or sing on. It was sampled like it was a hip-hop track but we just made the sample ourselves so it was pretty much the same approach as us finding a sample or a record and taking the chop from it and making it feel like a sample loop, a sampled groove which is hip-hop to the core. That is the epitome of hip-hop, taking samples and chopping them up, making your own beat out of it. I remember the record label asked us where did we get the sample from, and we had to let them know we created it ourselves.
“When You Really Love Someone”
Brothers: That classical feel. It was more inspired by when you hear people go through stuff and they’re in relationships and their relationships aren’t really that good but they think they have to go through it, more of her way of saying “Hey, you know what? You’re not supposed to go through all of that. When you really love someone this is what it’s like.” Also a touch on knowing your worth, kind of like “A Woman’s Worth” part two. It also gave that whole we’re a band feel. Program the drums as a real drummer, just giving that old school background, actually having background singers as opposed to her doing all of her backgrounds, which she does a lot on a lot of records, but taking it back to that classic feel and continuing on the vibe from the first album.
“Feeling U, Feeling Me (Interlude)”
Brothers: She was playing with this song for a while on the road and we wanted to make sure that the musicianship came out and have something for people who appreciate hearing instruments because she’s gotten so much better at playing and she had a vibe to it. It didn’t feel like it needed a full song. She put these chords down and when everybody heard it, it just puts you in this zone. She would hum along and come up with melodies and use the synth to do the lead line which sounded like a guitar but that was her playing the keyboard. It was magical, that lead sound said everything you need to say and then she just did her little simple background and what it reminded her of: long conversations on the phone, giving you that good and sexy feeling. It’s like the conversation is making me feel sexy kind of thing.
Black: Alicia manipulated some stuff on synth guitar sounds that sounded like an electric guitar. Her and Kerry worked that one up in the pre-production room. She brought it down, we recorded it and did the vocal, dd a quick mix of it. I thought it could’ve been a cool song but they wanted it to be an interlude.
Mincieli: Everyone really loved that song. A lot of times I hear people saying they want to hear the whole version and why didn’t we make it a song but she always felt it was an interlude.
Brothers: Another message for the ladies and fellas. “We don’t have to rush, I like what we’re doing, we’re getting stronger, but we can slow down? I really like how you’re stimulating me mentally, you already got me but we don’t have to rush.” It also has a chill hip-hop beat and influenced by the Isley Brothers.
Brothers: This is more to me the jazzy feel with a breakbeat and a story, her way to express her relationship with her father. She doesn’t literally say it but that’s the art of being a songwriter. You don’t have to be literal but you can figure it out and she’s showing her experience of it. It had a more Blaxploitation feel, showing a lot of instrumentation with it. It might have been the same guitarist from “Dragon Days.” That’s another one where all of the musicians were plugged up and we did it old school style.
“Nobody Not Really”
Mincieli: This was one of the first records really recorded that set the tone for the album. “Samsonite Man” and “Nobody Not Really,” and again, it taps into that live musician world kind of sound and gives you a vibe that the songs actually breathe and move.
Black: It’s weird, the first thing we recorded wound up last on the album in the sequence. And the last thing we recorded became the intro (Laughs) but “Nobody Not Really” was amazing in that it was a big experiment in Kampo to see if it was going to be the place we wanted to work at. There had to be drums, bass, guitar, flute, horns and her on piano and another guy playing organ. I think it might have been her music director, I can’t remember his name, but it was a full ensemble in the studio live and we recorded everything straight down, no overdubs or punch -ns, including Alicia’s piano. Once we had all that, she cut her vocal so that it would be separated from the band recording. She wanted that one mixed to feel like a 70s sound, she wanted to hear all the instruments, wanted to feel a vibe. She referenced to me Stevie Wonder several times, also Kerry. They were like, “We want this to feel not like a hip-hop or an R&B song, we want this to feel like a Stevie Wonder track from the 70s.” That’s why the drums are mixed back and all the instrumentation there. It’s sort of like a dreamy feel to all of it with the reverb and effects. That was the first one recorded and I believe it might have been mixed first. I think I mixed it at Quad.
Brothers: Another one with musicians and jazz influence. This is with her old girl group partner Taneisha [Smith]. Just the whole vibe of bluesy jazzy like, “Man, I’m out here doing this and that but who cares though? Nobody not really.” That’s the favorite term in Harlem or New York in general, like “Nah, right? Nobody not really, right?” It had that connotation to it like “Who really cares?”
One of my favorite albums “the diary of Alicia Keys” has a birthday today!! So many memories about creating this music.. here’s one of them.. Love and blessings to everyone that has been a light to me, has been and is on this journey with me and loves this music ✨💥🎂🎉💜😘 pic.twitter.com/5gRoLJnGRF
— Alicia Keys (@aliciakeys) December 2, 2018
Smith: It was inspired by Marvin Gaye. Alicia said, “Come to the studio, I have a song I want you to collaborate on.” A lot of times we were in the studio and we would vibe out all the lyrics right there, right on the mic, writing the lyrics spot on. With her and her engineer Ann Mincieli, they would always create these vibey and creative environments. It felt real old school. We always wished we were born as teenagers in the ‘70s because of the vibe of the music then. I feel “Nobody Not Really” brings that vibe. It was just me, her, Kerry, and I guess whoever else was collaborating on the song. I remember L. Green was singing background for her. It was a whole mood. It was such an amazing environment to be creative and feel free.
Robinson: It felt like the ending, like who Alicia was at the time — a very very deep thinker. At the end of the day, you look back at what you did and go, hmm. You know? It gives the listener a little bit of a pause, like “Wow, why is it ending on this song?” She’s really looking back, reflecting like, “Hmm, maybe everything I said doesn’t really matter. Maybe I’m just a whole different person than everything else I just talked about on the record.” Deep creative people think like that all the time. They always think they could’ve done it better, they could’ve did something else, and that’s the beauty of a creative. I just thought the song was a great ending to a great project.
Smith: I always had a tendency to write really dark. L. Green said to me, “You can’t write any songs that’s not so dark? Write some happy songs and let’s get back together.” That was the thing with “Karma” because Kerry was instructing me to be simpler and less introspective. On the first album, I co-wrote on “This Life” so I guess my direction is really introspective and expressing dark feelings or letting it out somewhere. I didn’t want to write a lot about love, I always wanted it to be something that people could listen to when they weren’t feeling so happy and could feel like someone could relate to it because that was the music that would help me. That’s where “Nobody Not Really” came from. “Mama’s tired. Father’s not home.” That was mainly a lot of times the aspect I was writing from which I’m happy when Kerry was like let’s be a little simpler on “Karma.” That’s when I got my first single.
The fruit of Keys and her collaborators’ labor produced lasting memories for fans across the globe, receiving the hardware to prove it.
Mincieli: Still to this day people want to buy a vinyl, they want to buy a CD. I saw a lot of people wanting to collect the record and longtime fans really appreciating it. It won a couple of Grammys and it was up for Song of Year. What else can you ask for? I was excited to be a part of a number one record and to get my name on an album like that was really incredible. I worked on it from the start until the finish. There were so many twists and turns and so many places we went to from Europe to L.A. to New York to Miami and I was part of it every step of the way from inception. It was really cool to see it get the accolades it deserved.
Harris: A lot of people think back to what they were doing at a time in their life and associate that album to it which means it’s a classic.
Robinson: At that time it was a matter of shock and awe with her. We never expected to win five Grammys the first time around [with Songs in A Minor], we never expected to win four the next time. You never know how good your stuff is until you put it out. You can be in the studio, with your friends, family, in your circle, “That’s incredible, that’s dope, that’s crazy!” but until you put it out and then you see millions singing your songs at concerts or getting awards at a Grammy show and being acknowledged by your peers, it’s a tremendous thing. It can’t be put into words. It feels like, “Okay I’m really working, I’m changing lives, people are feeling my thoughts to paper.” I think that’s a great feeling of accomplishment, like giving birth to a child. Or watching a child graduate.
Since The Diary of Alicia Keys, the wife and mother-of-two went on to publish four more albums that attained different levels of charting success. Her most recent album, 2016’s Here, reached the second spot on the Billboard 200. It served as the follow-up to 2012’s Girl On Fire.