Alicia Keys is one of the more accomplished popular artists of her generation. She’s won 14 Grammys, five American Music Awards and has sold roughly 35 million albums worldwide. But for all of her chart success and critical acclaim, there is one stinging criticism that has dogged her since the world first heard her at 17 years old back in 2001.
Alicia Keys can’t sing.
Or to be a little more specific, Alicia Keys doesn’t have the kind of voice R&B fans seem to associate with great singing. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but the criticism of Keys’ perceived vocal shortcomings is rooted in genre specifics. Traditionally, much of the R&B audience thinks of vocal ability first and foremost when assessing an artist’s greatness. But as a result of that focus on “sangin’” ability, it could be argued that R&B fans have ignored other elements that are equally important when assessing artists’ merits.
Keys is no powerhouse belter — no matter how many over-the-top anthems she unleashes on the public. Her voice always sounded more natural as a coo as opposed to a shout, but for many music fans, her voice was never supposed to compete with the pyrotechnics of Beyonce or the heartfelt wail of Adele. Earlier in her career, Keys seemed to be an earnest, piano-playing singer-songwriter in the mold of Carole King or Carly Simon. While both King and Simon certainly rank among the greatest artists of their generation, there were far better vocalists. King’s Tapestry album is routinely listed among the greatest albums ever made, but one listen and it’s easy to hear uneven vocals throughout that masterpiece.
Her greatness was never in the majesty of her voice. It was in the sincerity of her art.