Alicia Keys has finally learned how to breathe. Coming off seven years of heavy international touring, an ever-increasing number of film roles, and high-level charity work, the 27-year-old seems tranquil, just before launching on a high-profile arena tour with fellow crooner Ne-Yo. Perhaps it's the Zen-like calm she's acquired after successfully surmounting a rather public, near-breaking point in 2006, re-collecting herself in the deserts of Egypt. "I just needed to run away, honestly," she says. "And I needed to get as far away as possible, and so I did that."
Born Alicia Cook and raised in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Keys began singing and playing classical piano at age seven. Thirteen years later, she'd rock the R&B and pop worlds with her genre-bending 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor. Thanks in large part to the lead single, the megasmash "Fallin'," the disc went on to score the first five of Keys's 11 Grammy awards to date. Things didn't slow down: The 2003 followup, The Diary of Alicia Keys, went seven times platinum and netted her four more Grammys.
Over the next four years, the whirlwhind continued. There was a live album, Unplugged, in 2005. Then she starred in two big-budget Hollywood flicks: Smokin' Aces and The Nanny Diaries. And she began her extensive work as a global ambassador for the Keep a Child Alive Foundation.
This past November saw the arrival of her latest and most personal album to date, As I Am. It debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and sold almost 750,000 units in its first week — the second-highest-selling debut week of any artist over the past two years. (And, if anybody is counting, that's also almost 300,000 units more than the first week for Mariah's recent number one record, E=MC2). And, duly, the first single from As I Am, "No One," has already won Keys another two Grammys.
In other words, the woman can do no wrong. But Keys has always been determined to reach this point. "I just never forget one of the first concerts I went to go see, which was actually one of those radio shows that have a lot of artists on," she recalls. "It had to be, like, I don't know, 50,000 people or something crazy. And I remember one of my favorite groups at the time — and still is — was Wu-Tang.... And I just remember the announcer saying that Wu-Tang was coming onstage and all 50,000 people starting screaming, 'Wu-Tang!' They started chanting, and I'll never forget how that made me feel. And I was like, Oh my gosh. One day they're going to chant for me like that."
And chant they now do, around the globe. Most people would need a lifetime to pull off Keys's laundry list of feats: Aretha Franklin, by comparison, has won just seven more Grammys over her considerably lengthier career. Still, this came at a mental and emotional price for Keys, stopping just short of a breakdown almost two years ago when a close family member died of cancer.
Three days later, she found herself in Egypt, no family or friends, no bodyguards. "That trip was definitely the most crucial thing I've ever done for myself, in my life to date," she admits. "I was like, I want to sail down the Nile. I want to see the temples, the tombs, and the pyramids. I want to be moved. I want to see something I've never seen before. And it turned out to be the best choice that I've ever made."
Beyond these tidbits, Keys remains a deeply private artist. She declines to discuss her personal life, outside of autobiographical lyrics found on songs such as As I Am's "Superwoman," "Go Ahead," or even "Tell You Something," which happens to be about the family member she lost but whom she refuses to name. "We get so busy in our damn lives that you forget about those little precious moments that you would never be able to really experience," she says. "So [I had] those little precious moments [with the person], and that's what provoked me to write about telling the person and showing the person while they're there. You know, we fill up churches with flowers at a gravesite, but how about filling up a room with flowers while that person can breathe them?"
Keys has perhaps tried to live too much of every moment, though, part of the reason why Egypt became such a necessity. Consider her explanation of why she is compelled to devote so much of herself to Keep a Child Alive, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing life-saving anti-retroviral treatment to children and families with HIV/AIDS in the developing world. "Something that I have been constantly challenging myself about is the fact that the more I read about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Panther Party, the more I see they were so young and so driven and just so focused on making change," Keys says. "They weren't 60 or 50. They were 20 and 23, and I just look at myself and I say, Wow, I know that there is so much more I could be doing."
Still, she calls the Egypt trip a "pilgrimage," marking a true turning point in her outlook. "Being able to take myself out of my everyday environment, and kind of thrust myself into a brand-new world, to be totally alone, which I was, and to kind of shut off the world and shut out the world for a long period of time," she says, "it was like a self-discovery." Her management and label have felt this change the most, forced now to deal with her exerting greater control over her time.
"I came back and I was just freer. And I was more ready to do everything and anything," Keys says. "I just took all these restrictions off myself and all of these kind of rules and regulations and ways that I was used to creating, and all this crap, and threw them out the window. And I just allowed myself to be vulnerable and free and open, and it created [on As I Am] some of the best music I've ever created yet."
She's not exaggerating.