New York (CNN) — Backstage in a dressing room at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, lit by bright “Hooray for Hollywood” lights along the mirrors, Alicia Keys stands.
She is giddy.
“I just got this new belt,” she says to my camerawoman and me as we meet her, showing it off.
Indeed, the new belt is stylish. It’s brown, low-slung and has a little pocket attached to it on the side. Her schoolgirl-like glee over her new accessory is fitting, as she is about to walk into an auditorium full of college students.
But along with that excitement, there’s a more serious side to Keys. She talks with conviction, giving the sense that she can articulate her thoughts about everything from the new belt to the national debt. So it really makes sense she has begun a new project visiting colleges.
Tonight’s subject: “The Element of Freedom,” a lecture and performance, and not coincidentally the title of her album scheduled for release in December. Among the students she’ll be addressing are those in the performing arts program. They’ve been given vouchers to attend.
“I’m loving this tonight [that] we’re here at NYU,” Keys says. “I’ve always, always, always wanted to come to colleges. … These are some very creative young people out there, and I want to reach out to them and share some of my story and hear some of their questions and really be able to start a dialogue.”
Keys has plenty of life lessons to share with starry-eyed college kids who are also following their dreams. When her first album, “Songs in A Minor,” came out in 2001, Keys was just 20.
Now 28, Keys continues to thrive in an industry that is looking constantly for the next best young thing for public consumption. Keys was determined to avoid one-hit wonder status, and her 12 Grammys didn’t come without the effort.
“No matter where you’re from, you gotta put in the work,” Keys says.
Recently she has discovered a better way to hit the musical grindstone.
“Before I used to kind of just totally lock myself in a room and create for like months on end thinking that was the best way to create music,” Keys says. “But now I’ve really learned a balance between creativity and play and working and experiencing, and it’s really made the process of creating this record a lot more pleasurable.”
“The Element of Freedom” is her fifth studio album.
“Every song that you hear on the album has an element of freedom in it. If it’s the way that I’m singing, or the style that I’m explaining something,” Keys says. “For me, freedom is a big deal — I think for all of us because we’re all looking for our wings to fly, to not be held back, to be free to be who we are. So that’s another reason why I called it ‘The Element of Freedom.’ ”
Keys’ creativity may be running freely on her new album, but some major artists are also benefiting from the overflow. She co-wrote the song “Million Dollar Bill” for one of the most anticipated comeback albums of the year: Whitney Houston’s.
“I love being a part of Whitney Houston’s comeback, and me and producer Swizz Beatz being able to get into the studio and create this sound for her and this song for her,” says Keys. “She is such a dynamic force; it was really an honor and a pleasure.”
And when Jay-Z got into a New York state of mind for his latest hit, he brought Keys into the mix and asked her to collaborate on his ode to the Big Apple.
“He called me up he said I have this really great New York record (‘Empire State of Mind’), and I couldn’t think of anyone else who would be better.”
Keys says, “The piano was in it, and I did some writing on it as well, and some playing on it, and just put my whole heart into it and I’m so proud of it and I’m so glad that the world loves it.”