• Image about New York City
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Personally and professionally fulfilled for the first time in her life, Alicia Keys opens up, takes control and cements her status as the Queen of R&B on her powerful new album, Girl on Fire.

Before we talk about Alicia Keys or any of her music — and we obviously will — let’s talk about a song that isn’t hers. Not completely. It’s Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” on which Keys sings the indelible, slightly grammatically challenged hook.

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothin’ you can’t do/Now you’re in New York/These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you/Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York

  • Image about New York City
Songbird: Keys performing in September at the 2012 MTV Video Music Awards in Los Angeles
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
 Keys and I are in New York, in her apartment building’s basement-level meeting room. We’re discussing how, or if, she knows a song is a hit. Naturally, “Empire State of Mind” — a song so inescapable even my retired father probably could rap at least a verse of it — comes up.

“I’ll never forget, after we finished it and me and Jay were talking and feeling great about it, I remember him saying something like, ‘Is it too New York?’ and I was like, ‘Probably. But it’s good,’ ” she says, laughing. “I remember having that moment. But never — not him, not me, not any label — not any of us would have expected that song to be the monster that it became. It became a monster. It had its own face and legs and arms. It was crazy to witness. Even in France or Germany, you hear,” — she sings — “New Yooork.”

“New Orleans. Mississippi. Across the board.”

It was only after she’d sung it (dozens of times) and heard it (hundreds of times) that she realized the song wasn’t too New York. It wasn’t even about New York at all. “It was about the possibility to do anything that you want,” she says. And it was only after she finished her new album, Girl on Fire, that she realized she’d written a collection of songs more or less about that exact same idea.