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Classically trained keyboardist Alicia Keys may be 21, but she's up to the hype.

The Right Keys

In her song "A Woman's Worth," from her multiple-platinum-selling debut album "Songs in A Minor," Alicia Keys sings: "You can buy me diamonds/you can buy me pearls/take me on a cruise around the world/Baby, you know I'm worthy." Boy, she's got that right.

When you've been on the scene less than a year, and Prince flies you out to Minneapolis to perform at his birthday party, you're worthy.

And with six Grammy nominations to bolster that assertion, it's not too much to call Alicia Keys the new It girl of the music industry.

When you open your debut record with Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and layer gospel-tinged vocals and hip-hop beats over it, you're going to get noticed. And when you open your live performances with that song, often decked out in very little, you're really going to get attention. Especially when you can play it like a classically trained pianist, which Alicia Keys is. Keys will perform that number and others at the Landmark Theater on Feb. 11. Act now if you want to find a seat.

Part of the charm of the Alicia Keys story is that Clive Davis signed her. Davis started Arista Records and counts Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, Patti Smith, Whitney Houston and Sarah McLachlan as his artistic offspring. In the midst of Carlos Santana's recent comeback, Davis was ousted in favor of younger management. In an act of sweet revenge, he took Alicia Keys with him, and she is now the most important new talent in the music industry, and Davis can claim the credit — and revenue — for finding her.

Most of the charm of the Alicia Keys story, however, comes from her background. She was raised by a single mother, who brought her up in a one-bedroom apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen — which is behind the "bad" side of Times Square. In pre-Giuliani times, Times Square was little short of a hellhole, and that was the better part of the neighborhood Keys called home. Despite seemingly long odds, Keys graduated as valedictorian of her class at the New York Professional Performance Arts High School and was accepted to Columbia University.

Leaving Columbia to embark on a recording career seemed another long-odds proposition, but after a disappointing — and fruitless — period at Capitol Records, Keys joined Davis' roster and proved that her decision had been stunningly correct. In June 2001, her debut album entered the Billboard chart at No. 1. In late September, she was the featured musical performer on "Saturday Night Live" for the first telecast after the Sept. 11 attacks. Along with Paul Simon, she was the voice of New York, and America, that night.

Her performance during the "America: A Tribute to Heroes" event two weeks earlier had already clinched it for me. First, there was the touch and assurance of her piano playing. Next, there were the judicious spaces between the notes, and a graceful ease in altering the tempo. And finally, her "old soul" vocals were a breath of fresh air, not to mention right on the money. Her voice is a rich and passionate instrument, devoid of histrionics and vocal gymnastics. In an evening packed with illustrious stars, her solo piano take on Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" was a riveting breakout performance.

From Hell's Kitchen to the Ivy League to Prince's birthday party to the Grammy platform — it's been quite a journey, and she's only 21. How far has she come? I expect to see an Alicia Keys billboard in Times Square the next time I go. She's that big. And she's worthy.

Alicia Keys performs at the Landmark Theater Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $35-$43 at box office or through Ticketmaster, 262-8100.

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