Alicia Keys‘ The Diary of Alicia Keys turns 20 years old today (Dec. 2), originally dropping in late 2003 and becoming the definitive album within the genre the following year. With the success of her debut album, 2001’s Songs In A Minor, came expectations of the musician to top herself and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump.
Not only did Diary meet expectations, it far exceeding them. Thanks to Keys’ matured songwriting, riskier vocal choices, and a true understanding of herself as an artist, the star was able to curate a body of work both classic and of-the-moment, fresh, yet familiar. It certainly resonated with the masses, as the record debuted at No. 1 on the US Billboard 200 chart, selling 618,000 copies in its first week.
The Recording Academy also took notice of the record, awarding it the Best R&B Album Grammy. Keys also took home awards for “You Don’t Know My Name” (Best R&B Song) and “If I Ain’t Got You” (Best Female R&B Vocal Performance).
She also picked up a trophy that night for Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocals (with Usher) for “My Boo”.
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While the aforementioned faves, as well as singles “Karma” and “Diary”, hold a special place in our R&B hearts, the album as a whole was a moment worth celebrating, as Keys did with her One Night Only performance of Diary at New York City’s Webster Hall Friday (Dec. 1).
In addition to checking out her 20th Anniversary re-release of the classic album, reminisce with VIBE as we rank every track on the R&B staple, The Diary Of Alicia Keys.
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The Blaxploitation-influenced instrumentation that opens the record immediately grabs listeners ears, but this soon switches to a more melancholic beat that’s fine, but not particularly interesting. Vocally, the songstress phones it in on this record, providing a pleasant experience for the listener that still leaves something to be desired.
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“Slow Down” finds the songstress imploring her partner to be patient as she decides if a physical relationship is worth pursuing. The song’s message undoubtedly resonates with anyone who’s felt pressured into moving forward in a relationship before they were truly comfortable, gaining it major points for relatability. The low-key track, however, lacks a stand-out moment that would kick it up a lil higher on this list.
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With “Samsonite Man”, Alicia gave us her take on “Papa Was A Rolling Stone”, describing a man not meant to be tied down, ready to leave his woman at a moment’s notice with nothing but mid-tier luggage by his side.
It’s a dope concept to explore, as many have dealt with the plight of an inconsistent lover. Similarly to “Slow Down”, however, the track lacks a particularly moving climax or musical variation that would allow for it to be a stand-out on this exceptional body of work.
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At 1 minute and 43 seconds, “Harlem’s Nocturn” serves as a great introduction to Keys’ sophomore album, setting the tone for a record full of Grammy-winning material that embraces the beauty’s classical training and innate Hip-Hop energy.
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This jam finds Keys diving into the intensity of a tumultuous relationship over funky drums arranged by producer Timbaland. The beat, however, doesn’t feel like a Timbo joint, which can be a positive or a negative, depending on what you believe Keys was trying to achieve. If her goal was to have a track by the legendary producer that still feels very singular, then she did just that.
Keys also turns in an impressive vocal performance on the James Brown-influenced tune, full of yearning, desperation, and perfect imperfections that truly convey the toll toxic relationships can take.
“Nobody Not Really (Interlude)”
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The Diary of Alicia Keys has two amazing interludes that compete with their full-song counterparts for prime spots on this list, the first being the album’s last track, “Nobody Not Really (Interlude).”
Instrumentally, the words “beautiful groove” come to mind. It invites the listener to sway along to its steady rhythm as it puts you in a trance with mesmerizing horns and backing vocals. Lyrically, Keys expresses the anxiety of feeling ignored, overlooked, and unworthy of consideration, tapping into a more vulnerable side of the New Jack City rep.
“If I Were Your Woman/Walk On By”
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Keys’ cover of Gladys Knight & The Pips’ “If I Were Your Woman” is a swagged-out effort to bring the soul classic to a younger generation via its Issac Hayes “Walk On By” sample, famously used by The Notorious B.I.G. on his classic, “The Warning.”
While it’s an enjoyable listen, Keys’ original work that’s influenced by this era leaves a more lasting impression than this remixed cover, with the next two tracks on this list being perfect examples.
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“Wake Up” borrows from 60s and 70s soul, a track that could’ve easily been taken on by the Gladys’ and Aretha’s of the world stylistically. Instead, we have Alicia turning in one of her best vocal performances, as the song’s old school instrumentation demands. There’s still some heavy drums that bring the track into the 2000s, but the influence is clear on this one, and Keys surely did her foremothers proud.
“When You Really Love Someone”
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Keys’ yearning 2nd-soprano is put on full display on this mid-tempo number, as she crescendos from meek, conservative crooning into emotional belts. She matches that passion lyrically as she professes what it means to love beyond the surface.
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While Keys is known for beautiful ballads and mid-tempo grooves, sis has a few bops in the repertoire as well, “Karma” being one of her most beloved. Thanks to instrumentation that draws from both Hip-Hop and classical, the track appealed to the masses looking for an uptempo tune from the star that still felt authentically her. Many also couldn’t help but relate to the song’s theme, as Karma has proven itself, time and time again, to catch up to those deserving of its wrath!
“Feeling U, Feeling Me (Interlude)”
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While technically an interlude, “Feeling U, Feeling Me” is two minutes of Keys finally giving fans a taste of her sexy side, which up until this point in her career, felt elusive for the songstress. Dripping in heat, the song questions if two potential lovers are “feeling” each other with the same level of desire, and is a steady inclusion on many a sexy-time playlist.
“So Simple” Feat. Lellow
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“So Simple” is for the boom-bap fans, as the swag of this record is just too heavy and Hip-Hop. At the same time, Keys’ delicate vocals and the soft piano that rides just beneath the surface bring it to an ethereal place listeners can curl up in. Simply put, It just feels good, and those are the records that stand the test of time.
“Diary” Feat. Tony! Toni! Tone! and Jermaine Paul
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A certified R&B classic, “Diary” finds Alicia imploring her partner to be as vulnerable as they need to feel safe within her presence, a sentiment many of us hold dear within our own relationships. It feels dark and moody, yet is filled with passion lyrically, musically and vocally, with both Keys and featured artist Jermaine Paul turning in a stellar vocal performances.
“You Don’t Know My Name”
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A true earworm, this Kanye West-produced track was written to be remembered. From Keys’ repeated refrain of “Baby, baby, baby!” to the angelic “Oooooohhhs” sprinkled throughout the track’s hook, “You Don’t Know My Name” was structured to embed itself within the listener’s psyche.
Most memorable would be the song’s old school talk break, where we get to hear Alicia’s waitress alter-ego “with the braids” spit game at “Michael”, played handsomely by Yasiin Bey, formerly Mos Def.
“You Don’t Know My Name” went on to win Alicia the Best R&B Song Grammy.
“If I Ain’t Got You”
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One Keys’ biggest hits to-date, the simple piano ballad has become a staple of vocal auditions and weddings alike, capturing the essence of a pure love, undisturbed by the material world. The accompanying video, co-starring Method Man, is also a stunning time capsule of winter in New York City, as well as the ups and downs of a relationship rooted in true connection.
The song went on to earn Keys a Best Female R&B Vocal Performance Grammy in 2005.
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