Self-contained female performers have always been a rarity in R&B, so when one comes along, overreaction is perhaps inevitable. In 2001, plenty who heard Alicia Keys (this writer included) were so knocked out by the preternaturally poised 19-year-old pianist, they failed to notice that much of the music from Songs in A Minor was, well, minor. Minus the hype, her second album reveals her weaknesses -- still too many vamps dependent on Keys's keyboard chops -- disappointingly quickly. But the entries in this Diary also contain a few of the classic tunes missing from her Grammy-winning debut.
For one of them, Keys has to swipe the melody from Burt Bacharach's "Walk On By" -- which she gives a good home, fattening it up with gospel hollers and palpable longing. "If I Ain't Got You" climbs its ascending melody straight into Philly Soul heaven. The centerpiece, though, is "You Don't Know My Name," a fantasy aimed straight at every unrequited lover. The tune eavesdrops on a phone call between Keys -- "the waitress from the coffeehouse" -- and a customer with whom she's smitten. On paper, it's unspeakably corny; on disc, it hits the heartstrings. Those moments make it likely Keys's critical mash notes will someday be justified.
Kelis, meanwhile, seems the sort of performer Keys's success was a reaction against. A singer of average technical gifts, she has a bio that reads like that of any of a dozen R&B vixens hoping for a little Neptunes magic. But not only does no one push the Neptunes' future funk further than Kelis; on her third album, the Harlem-born wild child also inspires greatness among other collaborators, including Rockwilder -- whose "In Public," a duet between Kelis and fiancé Nas, is the Dirrty hit Xtina's always panted for -- and neo-soul man Raphael Saadiq. Disconcertingly poised between little girl and nasty girl, Kelis's voice is an X-factor that far transcends its limitations; over the wildly oscillating synth-bass of "Milkshake," she taunts the boys: "They lose their minds/The way I whine." A full taste of Tasty proves that's no idle boast.