Alicia Keys Gets What She Wants

With her jazzy new album, Keys, the singer stopped worrying about everything except what matters: Her own opinion.

Alicia Keys

(Image credit: Yu Tsai)

Marie Claire November 2021 cover

(Image credit: Tova Diamond)

Among the list of things Alicia Keys is exceptionally good at: making a mint tea latte. It’s nearly 11 a.m. on a Monday morning and she’s busy preparing two dairy-free cups in her spacious kitchen. The singer is in full mom-mode: Pancakes and eggs are also being whipped up and kisses are planted on the forehead of her youngest son, Genesis, 6, who sits at the counter next to his grandma, Keys’ mother, Terria. The kids—Keys’ son Egypt is occupying himself elsewhere in the house—don’t have school due to a teacher development day, so everyone is easing into the morning. After taking a sip of the latte Keys made, it’s clear it punctuates the mood: Everything here feels sweet and mellow.

Keys had hoped to sit outside on the terrace of the California mansion where she and husband Swizz Beatz (real name Kasseem Dean) are raising their children; the cliffside architectural masterpiece features uninhibited views of the Pacific ocean. But it’s late October and a bit too chilly and windy for that. So, with mugs of tea in hand—Keys’ is white with a big black “A” on it—we walk down the curved staircase to the 4th floor. Along the way we pass the spacious, yet cozy home cinema where Egypt just hosted a crew of friends for a sleepover in celebration of his 11th birthday. Blankets and pillows are still strewn about. Evidence of a good time. Keys shakes her head as she recalls her surprise at the number of pals on her son’s guest list. “I was like, really, seven?!” she says with a laugh. But the kids had a blast, so giving the pre-teen turnup the green light was worth it.

Alicia Keys

Giorgio Armani coat; Bulgari rings; Paris Texas boots

(Image credit: Yu Tsai)

Down the stairs just a bit further is the entrance to the subterranean garage and the area of the house deemed the “grownup floor”—once used as a film set in Marvel’s Iron Man franchise. Today’s set-up is all Keys, Dean, and, despite the area’s nickname, their kids: Large photographs by Deana Lawson line the walls, a few of Dean’s Cuban cigars sit half-smoked in an ashtray, and electric scooters and two motorcycles flank three red Ferraris. It’s here that we cozy up on opposite black, butter-soft leather armchairs to talk about the singer’s forthcoming album Keys, the launch of her beauty brand, Keys Soulcare; and family life.

At home, Keys is surrounded by a lot of male energy, as she and Dean have mostly boys. (Sons Prince, 21, and Kasseem Jr., 14, and daughter Nicole, 13, from Dean’s previous relationships, split time between households.) But Keys loves being the queen of her castle. The status, assumed both personally and professionally after two decades of colossal success in the music business, is one she doesn’t take lightly; it’s been a journey for the 40-year-old to truly own her crown. Yes, she has multiple number one Billboard Hot 100 hits­ (“Fallin’,” “No One,” and Jay-Z collaboration “Empire State Of Mind” among them), 15 Grammys, and the title of biggest RIAA-certified female R&B artist of the millennium, with more than 65 million records sold (making Keys one of the best-selling artists in the world). But the singer, whose eighth album releases on December 10, says she’s never felt as strong and free creatively as she does now. “I’m reaching a place where I’m much more confidently clear about the power I possess,” she says, cozy in a Calvin Klein sweatsuit and no makeup. “I’ve always been strong and determined. I haven’t not known my power, but now I’m clearly aware of all of it, as opposed to just pieces of it.”

Born Alicia Augello Cook, the singer grew up in Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. Her mother, who raised her solo (Keys has reconnected with her father, Craig, as an adult), regularly played records by Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder; Keys counts the artists as inspiration. By age 7, she began taking classical piano lessons and, at 15, signed her first major record deal with Columbia Records. In 2000, when the singer-songwriter was 19 years old, she dropped her self-produced debut album Songs in A Minor, which introduced the world to her impeccable piano playing and songwriting skills, and her smooth, soulful voice. All eyes were on Keys. But with success came fear. With each new release she worried: Will this be the biggest? Will it be enough? How do I keep up and remain relevant? As a result, her sound grew progressively more commercial. Working on her latest album, though, she stopped asking these questions. “It took me a while to get to a place where everyone else's opinion and thought didn't dictate my own.”

Alicia Keys

Giorgio Armani jacket and pants; Bulgari necklace and rings

(Image credit: Yu Tsai)

Keys, the singer’s jazziest and most elegant album to date, finds the musician going back to basics. “I created the whole album sitting at the piano,” she says. “It felt so good to just sit there. I felt so comfortable coming back to my home base, back to that rawness and exploring even more of this kind of jazzy energy I started with.” Delving into this creative process led Keys “to create a confidence and a level of reckoning and willingness” to return to her roots. “I wanted to own my lane.” Listen to new tracks like “Is it Insane”—a dark tune about obsessive love that transports the listener to an underground jazz club—and it’s clear her lane runs directly through classical music and moody soul. In her YouTube Originals docuseries, Noted: Alicia Keys The Untold Stories, which details her creative process and her home life, there’s a moment when she performs the song. With her eyes closed and signature braids hanging over her shoulder, she looks satisfied. Jody Gerson, the Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group and Keys’ partner on She Is The Music, a nonprofit devoted to increasing the number of women in the industry, has known the singer since the start of her career and finds Keys’ musical evolution inspiring. “Through the years, she's gained more control and beautiful energy,” says Gerson. “She's constantly searching and learning and now she's truly standing in her power. She's extraordinary.”

For Keys, fully realizing her power isn’t just about the music. It’s also about setting boundaries. In her 2020 book More Myself, Keys wrote about breaking down “into a full-fledged Ugly Cry” in her dressing room in the fall of 2006 because she’d been pushed to her limit: “Amid the constant moving…the constant pleasing and pretending, I’d delivered my grandest performance yet: convincing the world that, behind my smile, all was as perfect as it appeared.” In reality, Keys was burned out. She’s since sought to strike a balance. “I don’t want every single minute of every day accounted for,” she says. “My time is important. I want to have time with my family. I want to raise my kids. I don’t want to always be 60,000 miles away.” But when work does pick up, she sits and talks with her sons about her absence. She’ll say, “‘It’s going to feel like I’m not around as much and you’re going to feel it. I’m feeling it, too. It’s okay. This is a season.’ We have to have these types of conversations.”

Keys’ husband marvels at the love she pours into their family. “I admire her for her superwoman, super-mother strength,” he says. When it comes to their 11-year marriage, Dean says one of the reasons they’re so happy is their ability to effectively communicate. “We have this method my wife came up with, where I speak or she speaks, and then we repeat what each other said so it's understood. We haven't ever raised our voice to each other.” Adds Keys, “We’re best friends. We laugh all the time. And we both do music, so we understand each other and our lifestyles.” Despite their busy schedules, they try not to go more than two weeks without seeing each other and, although Keys is a morning person, she makes a point to sleep in late with her man a few times a month to reconnect. “It’s about time for one of those days,” she says, flashing an angelic smile.

Alicia Keys wearing Bulgari jewels

Bulgari bracelet and rings; Armani Beauty makeup and nails

(Image credit: Yu Tsai)

When she’s not snuggled up with her husband, Keys dedicates early hours to meditating and working out. “That feels really good,” she says. “I really like to get going.” Afterwards, she takes her kids to school, then uses her time to focus on being creative. Of course, during the pandemic, things were different. “Everybody was like, ‘Are you just so creative because you have all this time in the house?’” she remembers. “I was like, ‘No, actually. I do not feel like that at all.’ I didn’t even know how to work. What was I supposed to work on? Where was I supposed to work? And when? It was so much of making sure everything was organized and the kids were good.” Keys says that she tried to show up for herself, but fell short. “It was totally like, ‘I’m going to practice piano at 5 p.m. every day.’ I never practiced. This came up and that came up and you can’t hear and everybody’s loud and you can’t even.” Fortunately, though, she began to pick up an old habit. “I started to go back to stream-of-consciousness writing,” she says. “I was holding so much. You feel claustrophobic. The world is falling apart, and the government is shit and you’re like, What does anything mean? When I would be able to express those anxious feelings and say I’m falling apart, there would be room for things to come in.”

Another way she’s elevated her mindfulness is through self-care. A renewed focus on taking care of her skin and making time to recharge inspired the creation of Keys Soulcare, her new lifestyle and beauty brand. “Keys Soulcare is an accumulation of all the things I’ve realized over the years,” she says of the line, which launched in 2020. “I can find the place to feel good and feel like myself.”

In the past she’s been the face of brands like Dove and Givenchy, but the mission of Keys Soulcare is uniquely hers. “It’s about this idea of nurturing your soul and honoring yourself and starting to create rituals and opportunities for you to connect with yourself,” she says. Developed with Dr. Renée Snyder, dermatologist and co-founder of W3LL People, Keys Soulcare products (including Mind-Clearing Body Polish and a Sage + Oat Milk Candle), boast packaging with affirmations like, “My body is a vessel for love, light and strength.”

Alicia Keys

Giorgio Armani vest; Bulgari ring

(Image credit: Yu Tsai)

But Keys’s career growth isn’t stopping there. In March of 2022, she will release Girl On Fire, a graphic novel based on her single of the same name about a 14-year-old girl who discovers she has telekinetic powers while protecting her brother from a cop who pulls a gun on him. Keys, who became interested in graphic novels through reading them with her kids, was determined to get the story right. “I wanted to make sure that even though we were set in the projects, it was not perpetuating stereotypes,” she says. She also made sure the characters were diverse and that different body types were included.

Representation is big for the Deans, who are collectors of Black art. As my visit nears its end, we step into the elevator and glide to another floor to view some of the couple’s collection. “Every room in this house has a beautiful Black face,” she tells me. “When my kids walk in this house, they look on these walls they see their beautiful Blackness and it is normal. That does give you a certain sense of validation or belonging.” Hung are paintings by Derrick Adams, Henry Taylor, and Toyin Ojih Odutola, and a photograph by Gordon Parks. They also own a piece by Jean-Michel Basquiat. It sits behind Keys’s Steinway & Sons piano, a gift from Columbia Records when she signed her first deal. Undoubtedly, it’s a reminder of how far she’s come. “As you grow, your trajectory goes higher,” she says. “Then, you get to more of what you were always searching for. You get to do all these things that take you higher and higher, and that’s how I see myself: I’m the best I’ve ever been.”

Photographer: Yu Tsai | Creative Director: Lisa Oxenham | Stylist: Jason Bolden | Stylist Assistant: John Mumblo | Hair: Larry Sims | Makeup: Cherish Brooke Hill using Armani Beauty | Nails: Temeka Jackson | Producer: Grace Warn | Producer: Trever Swearingen | Photo Assistants: Massimo Campana, Danya Morrison, Jamie Kang | Location: Porkchop Production Studio

Jessica Herndon

Jessica Herndon is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based writer who has contributed to Women's Health, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Hollywood Reporter, Essence, the Associated Press, People, Spin, Flaunt, Nylon, and Seventeen.