Earworm Weekly: Alicia Keys' “If I Ain't Got You”

The Pandora set-up at my workplace loves Alicia Keys. The musical algorithm gods have anointed her as the utility R&B singer, appropriate for all moods and nearly every station, it seems. And like a good hipster, Pandora's software eschews the artist's best-known song, the Grammy-winning “Fallin',” for the runner-up, “If I Ain't Got You.” You know, to show that it's a real connoisseur and not just blindly following the crowd.
[jump] “If I Ain't Got You,” the second single off Keys' second album, torments me. Its chorus is a mess, with lyrics that meander all over the solid musical bones underneath. She stuffs syllables in wherever they fit. Keys delivers the lyrics with all the requisite vocal curlicues that mark this as a contemporary R&B song, while still managing to sound like she's on the verge of tears, and it's the vocals' heartfelt quality that really sells this song.

But ignore that for a moment and look at the actual words she's singing. “Some people want it all.” All of what? Well, she goes on to mention “diamond rings,” but that's the only concrete image in the entire chorus before she circles back to “everything.” She, in contrast, wants “nothing” – no food, no water, no shelter – “if I ain't got you.”

The verses do get more specific – in theory. In practice, they're larded with cliché. Some people want your love proven via a dozen roses – no, three dozen roses. Others want a fountain of youth or the world on a silver platter. Others want fame, fortune, power, or just “to play the game” – oops, there go those generalizations again. You would never guess from such generic blandishments that this song was inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, and also by the death of the singer Aaliyah, who died in August of that same year in a plane crash during a video shoot. But thanks to Keys' ability to sell the lyrics emotionally, you do know that someone or something left her broken-hearted, and she'll never be the same.

I still spend every second of the song's three-and-a-half minutes trying to edit it into a more sensible form. “Something is broken here,” the song sings under its breath to me, over and over again. “Help me fix it.”

But here's the rub: I can't. The song is fine. It works as-is. Its generic lyrics, its slow tempo, the understated instrumentation, all of it. I can't get rid of it, no matter how much its strange clanking chorus irritates me. It may be maddening, but it's also unforgettable.

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