Pop Quiz

Putting young R&B singers Alicia Keys and Blu Cantrell to the test

A quick pop quiz. How is Alicia Keys different from every other scheming young teenybopper scratching to get on the radio?

A. She's black.
B. She prefers to flaunt her rubbery vocal range rather than her taut young bod.
C. She writes her own songs.
D. She's got longtime industry shot caller Clive Davis on her side.
E. She's already on the radio.

The answer, of course, is all of the above. (Isn't it always in multiple choices like this?) But that doesn't mean each element is equally important. (Does it ever?) Let's set aside A. for the moment as an accident of genetics (actually, her mom is German-Irish and her dad has been out of the picture since her infancy) and E. as a given (her debut, Songs in A Minor, spent a full month lodged at No. 1, Oprah has given her imprimatur, and why else would we be talking about her?). Instead, peer deeply into B. and C., which mark the 20-year-old Keys as a class act among a certain strain of fan and journalist. As does, when you think about it, D.

Keys is the first twinkle in Davis's new financial constellation, J Records, an offshoot of BMG that the longtime industry kingpin was given as a reward for refusing to cooperate with his bosses at Arista. (Don't ask me--I just report this stuff.) And Clive Davis knows how to market "quality" pop--he is, in fact, a pioneer in the seemingly paradoxical marketing of swooping vocal excesses as genteel aural artifacts. He likes BIG voices, and so, odds are, do you, as a member of the record-buying public. If this weren't the case, Davis discoveries Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston wouldn't have made him so much money.

So, how are Keys's tunes? Better than the ones Debbie Gibson used to pen back when her compositional skills were equally celebrated, before she left the seedy world of teen pop for Broadway. (Don't be surprised to see Keys do likewise before she hits 30--this girl was born to play Dorothy in The Wiz, braids and all). And the puppy envy of "Girlfriend" is convincing. Keys is uneasy about her boy's best gal pal, a dilemma that's spelled out with the endearingly gawky line "She's just a girl who is your friend." Still, it's bad sign for her publishing royalties that the catchiest thing here is a Prince cover. A Prince ballad. A Prince B-side, actually. "How Come You Don't Call Me," which, to be fair, she rips through like the lounge classic it deserves to be.

An even worse sign: Although Alicia gets credit on her hit single, "Fallin'," it is as indebted to James Brown in its way as "It Takes Two." (And "I ain't never loved someone/Like I love you"--where have I heard that before?) The melody is J.B.'s "It's a Man's Man's Man's Man's World" rewritten as a fingering exercise for Chopin fans, much as you'd expect from a valedictorian from Manhattan's Professional Performing Arts School. And such conservatory piano lessons leave Keys's music well-tempered with classicism throughout. Forget Aretha Franklin's chord bursts--Keys trips across fewer blue notes than Bruce Hornsby.

The beats are those stuttered, unassuming high-hat triplets that make any Brian McKnight record so boring to make out to, and they sound like they've been left to any old dinkus to program. (Kerry "Krucial" Brothers is the dinkus in question.) Without a hallmark sound to fall back on, Keys puts too much strain on her lyrical insights. If "Caged Bird (Outro)" recontextualizes Maya Angelou more soupily than even a regular O subscriber could get with, "Butterflyz" is typical study-hall swoonsong poesy. As teachers of high school poetry classes will tell you, young folks have far more interest in the matter of love than they do insight.

 

You could probably say the same about the jaded songwriting pros at work on Blu Cantrell's So Blu (Arista), but to the extent that they feel unfettered by the demands of authentic expression, they're more willing to fake it. Beige and lovely Cantrell, Arista's first post-Clive newbie, comes fully equipped with a snazzy hit called "Hit 'Em Up Style (Oops!)," which advises cheated-upon ladies to max out the gold card before you ditch the jerk. It could be an activist sequel to Mary J.'s "Not Gon' Cry"--not only won't Blu shed no tears, she's gonna get what's hers. And there's a definite underpinning of hurt that's obviously been learned from Blige.

Cantrell's defiant pose is bolstered by "Waste My Time" (something "you" do) and "U Must B Crazy" (to think she has time for "you"). Now, telling off skanky men isn't quite feminism the way they taught it in grad school. But it ain't surrender either. And here's the funny part: It doesn't matter that men are penning the words, or that they're masterminding the beats. Both Dallas Austin and the Jam/Lewis contingent turn in strong efforts, and C. "Tricky" Stewart, who has done adequate-plus work with second-string starlets such as Mya and Pink in the past, comes into his own here.

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