On those rare nights when she isn't at the keyboard creating 'hit music, Alicia Keys retreats to her two-bedroom Cape Cod-style house in Queens, kicks off her shoes and lights up the grill. "I love to barbecue," she says. "But one time I tried to take the last piece of chicken off, and all of a sudden everything caught on fire."

Not unlike her career. The 20-year-old classically trained pianist, up for an MTV video music award next month and now on an 11 city tour, made a major splash in July when her debut album, Songs in A Minor, shot to No. l on Billboard's Top 200. It has hovered near the top ever since, a testament to more than Keys's dazzling smile. "She is bluesy, classical and infuses R&B and hip-hop into her songs," says Vibe music editor Shani Saxon. "Alicia has a broad appeal."

Influenced by everyone from Prince to Nina Simone, "Alicia always wanted to be a singer, even when we were 5 and playing with Barbies," says pal Katrina Morales, now 21 and a research assistant. Keys, who was raised by her single mother, Terri Augello, 51, a Manhattan actress and paralegal (her father, Craig Cook, 48, is a Colorado-based flight attendant), was 16 when she was accepted by Columbia—the record label and the university. After four weeks she dropped out of school to focus on music and has since signed with J records. Regrets? She's had a few—like having to settle for stolen moments with her boyfriend (whom she won't identify). Not that Keys is complaining about the newfound success. After all, this stage of her career, she says, "is a priceless moment. Like your first kiss, it never happens again."