A blind man could have seen this coming. This being Alicia Keys' foray into rock. Her 2001 debut Songs In A Minor was hip-hop influenced, received five 2002 Grammy Awards and most memorably left then fellow newcomer India.Arie empty handed. (Alright. Give me a second to count to 10. The latter still gets me mad.) However, Alicia has never been content. With each record, she has inched towards even more mainstream success and has prevailed.
Alicia steps outside any boundaries with "Another Way To Die," a song for the soundtrack for Quantum Of Solace, the latest James Bond saga. Teaming with Jack White of The White Stripes and The Raconteurs, they duet with their vocals and musicianship, trading Alicia's cutting piano notes with Jack's revving guitar strokes.
Alicia doesn't sit as comfortably here as she does on last year's No. 1 hit "No One," or previous favorites "You Don't Know My Name" or "Fallin'." But maybe that's because, while her vocals on "Another Way To Die" feel true to her style, they don't easily mesh with the rock fueled track that is clearly more White than Keys. Still, I give her props for re-inventing herself.
Alicia's rock track also calls to mind a few other soulful divas who have ventured outside of rhythm and blues to make rock songs.
Janet Jackson "Black Cat"
Years after Janet had established herself as the queen of dance with groundbreaking videos including "Control," "Pleasure Principle" and "Rhythm Nation," she surprised her audience with "Black Cat." While the song was a complete abandonment from Janet's R&B pop style and is featured on the Rhythm Nation 1814 album, it was a massive success, reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart.
Rihanna "Shut Up And Drive"
Aside from Madonna, it is hard to pinpoint another female pop artist who has changed her sound as frequently as Rihanna. Her 2005 dancehall debut "Pon de Replay" seemed to foreshadow the direction the Barbados-bred singer would take, but she quickly bucked the expectations by trying on new styles with each release. Following her infectious "Umbrella," Rihanna unleashed her rock heavy "Shut Up And Drive" that sampled Orgy's take on New World Order's "Blue Monday." Rihanna still made the track her own as her light-hearted demeanor gave the song added pop sensibilities.
Ike And Tina Turner "Proud Mary"
No other female soul singer has amassed rock graces as Tina Turner. This opinion is best supported in Ike And Tina Turner's performance of the Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Proud Mary." Tina illuminated the stage with both her electrifying singing and dancing that brought rave reviews for the group's 1970 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The song became their biggest hit, reaching No. 4 on the American pop singles chart and earning them the Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance For A Duo Or Group.
En Vogue "Free Your Mind"
It's hard to believe that these four ladies are not mainstays in popular music. Hands down, they possessed the best harmonies of any female vocal group of the '90s and delivered a seemingly endless string of huge records for several years. "Free Your Mind" was the song that impressed me the most. In delivering this rock song, Cindy, Maxine, Dawn and Terry got into full character, donning rocker chick hair, make-up and clothes; strutting down a catwalk; performing to a full-fledged rock track and boasting a four-part harmony that wins the praises of industry heavyweights. I attended my first En Vogue concert in July 2006 and they were still on fire even with Rhona performing in place of Dawn.
Ashanti "Only U"
[Raising my right hand ...] My name is Billy and I am a former Ashanti hate-a-holic. Yes, I could not help but give Ashanti credit for her catchy songwriting and choruses, but I was having major problems with her routinely singing off key. I was rooting for Missy-protégé Tweet at the time. But I saw something different in the Murder Inc.'s self-proclaimed Princess Of Hip Hop and Soul when she released "Only U" as the first single from her third album, 2004's Concrete Rose. Even though it samples Club Nouveau's 1986 hit "Why You Treat Me So Bad," producer 7 Aurelius turned this into one smoking hot track. I was the last to think that Ashanti could pull off such an accomplishment, but she did, and nicely.
Mary J. Blige "One"
Musically, Mary J. Blige can do whatever she wants to do. She's recorded with Elton John, Aretha Franklin, George Michael and, uh, U-freaking-2. She received Bono and company's blessing to not only remake their 1992 classic "One," but to record it with the legendary group. Despite my love for MJB, I don't particularly care for this version. However, I flipped out over her U2-influenced track "Come To Me" from last year's Growing Pains album.
Mariah Carey "Bringin' On The Heartbreak"
Mariah Carey could have nailed this remake of Def Leppard's 1981 song "Bringin' On The Heartbreak." Instead, she sucked most of the rock out of the track, save a couple faint guitar rifts and basic melody. She played it way too safely. But since it is a Def Leppard cover, it would have been wrong to omit the recording from a list of R&B chicks singing rock.
Mariah's decision to convert the song into a more traditional pop ballad probably had a lot to do with it being on her Charmbracelet album. Charmbracelet is the follow up to Glitter. You remember Glitter? The blockbuster combo flop-part soundtrack, part autobiographical film-that prompted her public nervous breakdown and release from Virgin Records? Yeah. Playing it safe with "Bringin' On The Heartbreak" was actually a smart move. Following Glitter, the last thing Mariah needed to do was to screw up a classic. And it worked. Charmbracelet helped Mimi prepare to be Emancipated in time for her next album. After "We Belong Together" she was sitting back in her throne.