It’s the right time. Eleven years after her debut, Songs in A Minor, was released, Keys is doing everything she wants. In 2010, she became a wife (she married rapper-producer? Kasseem Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz) and a mother (her son, Egypt, was born that October). And so her world is bigger and smaller at once, as her priorities shift away from herself, but not too far. Besides her focus on her family, there is her philanthropy work to keep her busy (her charity, Keep a Child Alive, will hold its annual Black Ball fundraiser on Nov. 1, with Oprah Winfrey as the guest of honor and ?Beyoncé and Carole King performing), as well as other, nonmusical professional pursuits (a recently launched app called The Journals of Mama Mae and Leelee is aimed at helping kids activate their creativity, and she is open to acting, as she did in 2006’s Smokin’ Aces). A decade ago, doing anything she wanted to meant music, period. Now, it’s just part of a long list. Yet somehow, it’s actually made the music better.
“Before, it was just all always whatever it took for the music,” the 32-year-old Keys says. “And I think that’s amazing, and definitely the drive and focus I had then surely played a part. But I also think it was a bit unhealthy too. I think now, even though it’s tricky, in a way it feeds the music more as opposed to me feeling like I have to choose one and can’t do anything else. In the beginning, you tend to be a bit of a sheep because you’re kind of just going wherever everyone tells you to go. And now I think it’s more, like, you go because you really love it and you want to be there and you believe in it and it’s something really important. I think that gives you a stronger character in a way.”
The night before I met Alicia Keys, I saw a flier taped to a pole, a yellow piece of paper that said, in inch-high letters, $2000 Reward: Lost White iPhone 4S. Below that, the flier explained the phone was very important to whoever lost it (clearly) and that it was left in the backseat of a cab at Port Authority (good luck). It didn’t mention why the phone was so important. The tamest answer I could imagine was “contains location of Holy Grail.”
That is on my mind the next morning when Keys pulls out her own white iPhone, which contains the entirety of her unreleased (and, from what I heard of it, very good) new album. She probably wouldn’t leave it in the back of a cab at Port Authority and, if she did, she probably wouldn’t advertise a reward for its safe return on a flier near the corner of 27th and Broadway. But if she did, she’d probably be willing to offer more than two large.
Keys has the phone with her because, well, she is a human being, and she makes calls and sends texts like anyone else. (Maybe not everyone else makes calls and sends texts to, say, ?Jay-Z, but you get the idea.) She has the phone with her at this exact moment because she is going to play me Girl on Fire. Before Keys arrives, her ?assistant, Jennifer, delivers a boom box the size of a footlocker, after an initially discussed formal listening session was eschewed in favor of this more personal arrangement. Listening with Keys is many things (slightly unnerving, mostly delightful). But sitting a few feet away from her in this basement while she sings along with herself, eyes closed, eyebrows dancing with the melody, head bobbing, giant hoop earrings bouncing — it’s certainly not boring.