The last song on Alicia Keys' newest release, "As I Am," is a gospel number called "Sure Looks Good to Me." In a voice heavy with grit and determination, Keys testifies about her desire to live a life undefined by corners and embraces the "freedom to fall" as a necessary stepping-stone to the pleasures that success can offer.
"Everything's not always going to be perfect or exactly the way you wished it was going to be, and the way that you handle that is what shows the growth you're going to have," says an upbeat Keys from New Orleans.
The inspiration for that failure-is-an-option sentiment, just one of the album's many paeans to self-possession including hit single "No One," came to Keys as she stood in the shadows of the great pyramids of Egypt two years ago.
Feeling overwhelmed by the demands of her career and grief over a recent death in the family, the critically praised, multiple Grammy winner fled to Africa seeking peace and quiet.
"It was right before I really started the record," Keys says of the emotional time that sent her packing. The trip allowed her to "just escape it and go away and find a place for myself to just ask myself a ton of questions and experience myself completely alone, which I had never done before. It really put me in a different mind state."
Producer Mark Batson, who has known and worked with Keys for several years and co-wrote three tracks on "As I Am," attests to the trip's transformative powers. "She could do it all and that's a blessing and a curse," he says of the singer-songwriter's tirelessness. "For her to walk away at the time was great and made it possible to do what she's doing right now."
Traveling down the Nile and wandering in and out of tombs and temples gave Keys a sense of perspective on what it means to achieve. "Just looking at them and saying, 'my goodness, this has been standing for thousands of years and still people to this day come here and are in awe of it and are inspired by it,' it really inspired me to be unafraid to do that."
That meant expanding her boundaries creatively and exercising her power professionally.
She learned to say yes to spicing up her old-school soul-pop sound with everything from psychedelic rock guitar to heavy funk rhythms and said no to scheduling every minute of her day with the business of being Alicia Keys.
"It's definitely a learning process, and it's something that I realize now it's just for my own well-being," says the 27-year-old New York native. "I realized you never get a day back and the only thing I want for my life —- well, I want a lot of things out of my life —- but the one thing I really want above all is to feel proud of the choices I made. And I also want to feel if I made any bad choices that I was able to learn from them."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.