It’s not an everyday occurrence to hear an unknown artist garner comparisons to a young Stevie Wonder, but such was life for Alicia Keys before her transformation into one of the biggest stars in all of music. Keys, who is now married to producer Swizz Beatz and a mother to the couple’s son Egypt, is a talent that other artists are being compared to by those looking to predict the next big thing that will take the music industry by storm.
Her 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, may have been her formal introduction to the world, but the foundation for her illustrious career was set nearly a decade prior.
Born in New York City and raised in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan, Alicia Keys, whose real name is Alicia Augello Cook, may have been the product of a single-parent household, but that didn’t stop her mother, a para-legal and part-time actress, from nurturing her creativity, enrolling her in classical piano classes at the age of seven. After mastering compositions from the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, Keys would begin to tackle jazz during her time as a student at the Professional Performing Arts School, a period that would play huge part in facilitate her big break into the music industry.
Becoming a member of a girl group, called EmBishion, Keys would pique the interest of manager Jeff Robinson after catching one of the group’s performances at the Police Athletic Center league in Harlem, who took the polished – yet undeveloped – songstress under his wing. “She had the looks, she had the talent, she had the personality. She sat down at the piano and played her own songs, and people would say, ‘Come on, you didn’t write that!” Robinson said of his protege in a 2002 profile of Keys in the New York Times. Graduating from high school at age 16 and as valedictorian, Keys initially planned to attend Columbia University, but ultimately dropped out to focus solely on her budding music career, which had begun to take off.
Initially garnering interest from Warner Brothers, but ultimately inking a million dollar contract with Sony in 1996, Alicia Keys seemed to be on course to be thrust into competition with the crop of r&b talent battling for chart position. But she would be relegated to the shelf as the label attempted to figure out how to present her to the public, contributing songs to So So Def’s Christmas compilation and the Men In Black soundtrack while in perpetual music industry purgatory.
Unhappy with her situation with Sony, Keys would be released from her deal in 1998 and taken under the wing of veteran A&R Clive Davis, who would play a huge role in breathing new life into her career, signing her to Arista Records. According to Keys, the pair hit it off immediately, with Davis giving his young protege the creative control she craved.