"The question is, are you ready?" Alicia Keys, looking into a video camera, asked of her fans last month in New York. After taking photos for her new album both in front of and behind a piano, the singer was bubbling over with enthusiasm for her project, due November 18.
"My excitement level is through the roof right now," she gushed. "I came off the road, I had an amazing time on the road. I've been able to sit in the studio and get everything out of me as I've been hearing it and I'm excited about the new stuff. We're about to do it again."
A few weeks ago, Keys was very secretive about a collaboration on her album with two MCs who have never rhymed on a track together. Since the song has recently hit mixtapes and the radio, we now know the track is called "Streets of N.Y." and that the rappers whose identity she didn't want to reveal are Nas and Rakim (see "Alicia Keys Locks In Nas, Rakim For New Album"). According to her manager Jeff Robinson, the cat wasn't supposed to be let out of the bag so soon.
"Somebody leaked that record out," Robinson said earlier this week. "Now that it's out, we're supporting it, but it's not her single.
"It was a collective wish list," he continued of the dream pairing of Rakim and Nas. "We were like, 'It would be dope if we could get Nas to come back on this record.' And at the time we were talking to Rakim's people. Then we were like, 'What if we put both of them together? The God and God's Son.' That's never been done before. If you gonna go New York, these are the two guys to do a New York anthem. I feel Rakim took it back. He got a burst of energy from 1989 or whatever."
On the record, Rakim gives his poetic words of wisdom, while Nas kicks his futuristic raps, comparing himself to Saddam Hussein "looking at his dead children's burnt remains."
"He [recorded his lyrics] way before Saddam's sons were killed," Robinson explained. "That's what made it ill. He was predicting."
As for what will be the first single, scheduled to drop at the end of September, Robinson said that's not such an easy decision.
"This new album is chock-full of singles," he said. "The choices [for a first single] are really hard. She's still creating songs. We're going to wait until she gets these last couple of mixes in then we'll all sit down and decide the single."
"Personally for me I don't want to be stuck in one box," Keys added about her LP, which still hasn't been named. "I wanna always spread my wings. That's how the songs on the album are. Every song on the album is a growth in some way. Even if it's something as simple as vocally. I feel my vocal growth is definitely something I've experienced. Seeing different places broadened my mind, seeing how people are so much alike. There's growth in my keys, my experimentation on sounds."
Besides Nas and Rakim, Keys also worked with Stokley Williams from Mint Condition, Dwayne Wiggins, Easy Mo Bee and Kanye West. She laid her tracks in the Big Apple.
"This is my home, this my place, this is where I live," Keys said about her hometown. "This is where I record. Everything I do, I stay planted in my home base. I got a New York state of mind, always."
Keys won't be staying planted in NYC for too much longer. She's scheduled to start performing in various cities at the beginning of October.
There may also be some movie projects on the horizon for the Grammy-winning songstress. Robinson said that Keys turned down several scripts in the past year because she wanted to concentrate on making her album before venturing off into Tinseltown. Now that she's just about done recording, she's a little more open to Hollywood.
Robinson has a few side projects coming up as well. There's a showcase for new and established singers he and his MBK Entertainment company put on in New York every month called R&B Live, where such luminaries as Keys, Macy Gray, Stephanie Mills, Vivian Green, Carl Thomas, Jermaine Dupri and Janet Jackson have either been onstage or in the audience. Robinson's also putting out a couple of new acts soon: an all-male group of 19-year-olds called Focus, which he likens to Mint Condition, and a male singer named Shawn Caine, whom he compares to Sam Cooke.