Alicia Keys helped redefine the term "overnight sensation" when her 2001 debut effort, Songs in A Minor, sold more than 50,000 copies during its first day of release. Mixing R&B songcraft with a sultry dose of neo-soul, the album went on to move more than ten million units worldwide, officially establishing the young Alicia Keys (who was only 19 during the recording process) as an international star. Although she shared the charts with such R&B contemporaries as Destiny's Child, Keys' talents distinguished her as a different sort of diva, one who played a variety of instruments and penned the vast majority of her songs without outside help. The Diary of Alicia Keys solidified her popularity two years later, and Alicia Keys spent the rest of the decade refining her now-signature sounds.
Alicia Augello Cook was born in Harlem in early 1981. Raised by her Italian-American mother, she enrolled in classical piano lessons at the age of seven and began writing songs four years later. An education at the Professional Performance Arts School helped hone her vocal skills, and Alicia graduated at the age of 16 as the class valedictorian. Two Columbias loomed on the immediate horizon: Columbia University and Columbia Records, both of whom had extended offers to the talented student/musician. Although she attempted to make both options work, Alicia found it difficult to juggle the two commitments and chose to focus exclusively on her music career. Assuming the stage name of Alicia Keys, she began to work with Columbia and contributed a song to the Men in Black soundtrack, but disputes with the label resulted in her contract's termination.
Keys bounced back by aligning herself with Clive Davis, the president of Arista Records, but work on her debut album stalled when Davis was ousted from the company in 2000. Davis soon formed his own label, J Records, and welcomed Keys back into the fold with an aggressive publicity campaign (including an influential appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show). Songs in A Minor was then released in June 2001 and debuted at the top of the charts, eventually netting five Grammys and platinum certifications in ten different countries. Released in 2003, The Diary of Alicia Keys enjoyed similar Grammy-certified success, and Keys released a book of poetry the following year. A live CD/DVD package, Unplugged, arrived in 2005 and followed Keys' two previous releases to the top of the charts, even if it failed to win any of the four Grammys for which it was nominated. Alicia Keys then entered the acting world, starring in both Smokin' Aces and The Nanny Diaries in 2007, before issuing the pop-influenced As I Am later that year.