Alicia Keys can remember exactly how she felt when she first met her future husband.
All of 14, the New York City native was on track to graduate high school (as valedictorian) and enroll at Columbia University and, on the precipice of signing her first record deal, was already working on the music that would become her Grammy-winning, multi-platinum 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor. And that's when a mutual friend introduced her to a confident young record producer named Kasseem Dean. With DMX's "Ruff Ryders' Anthem" to his name, the man, known in the industry by his professional moniker, Swizz Beatz, was already drawn to the finer things such success afforded.
"Swizz will have the fastest car, the biggest jewelry, the loudest jacket," the singer, who'd already swapped her given surname of Augello-Cook for the more melodic sounding Keys, told Marie Claire UK in 2013. "Everything with him is really over the top. I used to see him and think, 'He is so annoying.'"
To be truthful, she confessed, she was hardly fallin': "I didn't really like him that much."
Apparently he's the kind of person who can grow on you.
Because in the two decades since the 15-time Grammy winner and classically trained pianist, marking her 40th birthday Jan. 25, finally relented and agreed to get in the studio with the legendary producer and rapper, 42, you could say her opinion has changed.
"I think what happened was, he really got me when I saw how far his mind went," she explained during a 2013 visit to The Wendy Williams Show. "He's really, really intelligent and knows so many interesting things." The more she spoke with him, she continued, the more she discovered "he knew all this stuff I had no idea about. I think that he loves to live life and he really showed me how to live life in a beautiful way."
Their shared forever, as she wrote in her 2012 song "That's When I Knew," began in the middle of one such conversation: "Wasn't anything special you said / It was just there / Right then / I didn't have time even to overthink it / I loved you and all of a sudden / I was all in," and landed them on the French island of Corsica on July 31, 2010, trading vows and making plans for the family they'd already begun.
Now a decade into their marriage, they're marveling at how 10-year-old Egypt Dean is composing songs and 6-year-old Genesis Dean is already adept at dropping a beat, and relishing the fact that they're still borrowing the best bits of each other's personas. "I think we've taught each other a lot," she told Marie Claire. "He's taught me to live more fully and I think I've taught him to live more deeply."
Theirs was admittedly not an instant connection, she told the Daily Mail in 2012. "It was a very slow burn, but it does still burn and it's beautiful."
So, that's one argument for listening to management. "I fought it tooth and nail," Keys, Billboard's top R&B artist of the 2000s, recalled to Marie Claire UK. "Why should I work with him?" Every time they had crossed paths at an award show or another industry event, "He'd usually pull up in some fancy car, rolling deep with his Bronx crew and shining with diamonds," she wrote in her recently released autobiography More Myself. "I wanted nothing to do with that scene or with Swizz."
She hated how he boasted about laying down a composition in just 10 minutes' time and brushed off many an attempt to schedule in that studio date, she said in Marie Claire UK, "Finally, though, we did it and we had a ball." (And, as she noted in a 2020 InStyle profile, "We literally made a song in 10 minutes. I was like, 'Aw, s--t!'")
Exploring more than just their shared musical interests, Keep a Child Alive cofounder Keys and Swizz, the Global Ambassador for New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation bonded over their similar world views and experiences growing up some 15 miles apart. "The more we talked the more I noticed how his mind worked," she wrote in her book. "Beyond the baggy jeans and arm tats there was depth. He was so aware of what was happening around the world."
Still, their first date was not without its hiccups. "I finally agreed to have lunch. I made a reservation for noon at an outdoor restaurant in downtown Manhattan," she recalled in her book. "I arrived at twelve on the dot. Swizz was nowhere in sight." When "he finally came strutting in at 12:20," she wanted to be livid, she continued, but the DJ and musician "lifted the mood with a steady stream of humor and fascinating conversation."
Then the avid art collector unveiled his pièce de résistance. "As we approached my car I noticed something enormous attached to its top," she wrote. "He smiled. 'That's why I was late,' he said. It was a painting of a grand piano with paintbrushes attached to the keys. 'When I saw this,' he explained, 'it seemed like the perfect representation of our friendship. You're the keys, I'm the brushes.'"
His past, however, would be a bit tougher to brush past.
In between the duo's early high school encounters and those first smoldering embers of romance, the prolific Grammy-winning producer had a son, Prince Nasir Deam, with Nicole Levy in 2000, wed singer Mashonda Tifrere in 2004 and welcomed their first son, Kasseem Dean, Jr. two years later. And while Swizz insisted his marriage to Tifrere had already unspooled by the time his friendship with Keys ventured into less platonic territory, his estranged bride had a different take.
Claiming her attempts to reach out to Keys privately had been brushed off, Tifrere posted an open letter to the singer on Twitter in September 2009, alleging "she assisted in destroying a family."
Further complicating matters, Swizz discovered in 2009 that he was the father of a daughter named Nicole, British singer Jahna Sabastian having kept him in the dark about the child's 2008 arrival as to not affect his marriage. As Sabastian explained to TheHomeofHipHop.com in 2014 "I only reached out with official paperwork after I have found out that the divorce had already been filed for totally different reasons that had nothing to do with my child and I." Keys was at Swizz's side when he flew to London to take the paternity test.
Not exactly the stuff of fairytales, but nothing that couldn't be overcome with the right mix of honesty and romance, something that's proven to be a speciality for Swizz.
There was the time he had Keys' likeness tattooed on his arm ("It's so beautiful," she told Wendy Williams, calling it her favorite gift) and, of course, the move he made just ahead of her 29th birthday in January 2010. Proposing with a reported seven-carat diamond, he whisked her off to Hawaii to celebrate and then presented her with another gift.
"I lifted the cardboard flaps and looked inside to see several large canisters. 'I've always wanted you to be my canvas,' he whispered. The canisters were full of body paint, in every vibrant color imaginable," she shared in her autobiography. "Later, stroke by stroke in the shadows of dusk, he turned me into his masterpiece, covering me in swirls of yellows, reds and purples. Never have I experienced anything more sensual. Which is why, when I missed my period a few weeks later, I wasn't exactly surprised. As that winter gave way to spring, we relished two pleasures: the engagement and the pregnancy."
That July they wed at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea in a small ceremony officiated by Deepak Chopra and three months later they were holding baby Egypt in their arms. With Genesis' December 2014 arrival, Swizz became a father of five, his sprawling, blended family settling into a cohesive unit. "Time has a way of healing things," Tifrere told People in 2018, "but we also had to heal ourselves."
By the time Tifrere penned her guide Blend: The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, they'd long since shored up any weak spots, Keys writing the foreword for the 2018 book and Swizz tackling one of the chapters. "It took two years into our blending to make it happen, but when we did it was like turning the light on," Tifrere said to People.
An invite that Tifrere extended to Keys for Kasseem Jr.'s sixth birthday in 2012 solidified the work they'd begun. "Not only did she come, but she stayed until the end of the party, and that moment was our first time really hanging out together as a family," Tifrere wrote. "And our son saw that and his eyes—you could just see, because for the first time he was like, 'Wow, they're all together.'"
Now, Keys shared on Good Morning America in 2018, "We love each other. I mean, we hang out with each other. We go to dinner together. We're doing Thanksgiving, we're doing the holidays. It is a beautiful partnership. And that is really, really special. I'm very, very proud of that. It's a real thing and it's possible."
Swizz and Key's union is built on that same brand of thoughtful communication.
"I think the most important thing in any relationship is presence—being present and really choosing to make the time and take the time for the people that you love...not letting a part of your job be more important or a part of your career be more important, you know?" she explained to Billboard in 2016 of their trick for balancing two mammoth careers and still leaving room to nurture romance. "And communication—really talking about who you are, because we grow, and we should be growing together. So you're both growing and both evolving and learning more about yourself and learning more about each other, and I think when you give each other the opportunity to continue to know each other, that really strengthens it."
To that end, they've made it a point to employ a few rules, never spending more than two weeks apart—"Swizz has even flown from New York City to Sydney to be with me, in order to keep that promise intact," she shared in her book—and declaring Keep It Real Tuesdays (or Wednesdays, Thursdays or Fridays) whenever necessary where "we just have to be honest, whatever it might be."
Though Harvard-educated Swizz has no shortage of opinions, "We don't fight because we talk so much," Keys told People. "We can both be genuinely honest. It's the first time I've ever had a relationship that has been so genuine."
That's not to say every moment is ballad-worthy. "It's not like we haven't disagreed or he hasn't been uncomfortable with something I did or I haven't been uncomfortable with something he did," she explained on The Late Late Show With James Corden last September. "We've definitely had moments where, 'that felt weird.' But we definitely communicate in a way that's...we don't let it build up."
Though she's not about to claim she's got everything figured out. There's a whole lifetime for that.
"I'm learning as I go, too," she told SBTV in 2016. "That's the truth and I think that one of the things I've learned most recently is just really to find who you are. Find who you are, and don't be so worried about who everybody else around you is...When you know something's right for you, you feel it."
(Originally published July 31, 2020 at 12:00 a.m. PT)