"I wanted to fit in so desperately," Alicia Keys says in InStyle's July cover story

At 20 years old, Alicia Keys burst on to the scene with her debut album, Songs In A Minor. It went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earned her five Grammy Awards, setting the tone for nearly two decades of continued success.

But despite how monumental that moment was in her life and career, the superstar singer, now 39, wouldn't want to go back.

"I swear, I wouldn't go back to being 20 if somebody paid me — it was literally the worst time ever," Keys revealed in InStyle's July cover story. "I wanted to fit in so desperately. I was so blind, so dependent on everybody else’s opinions, so uncomfortable, so unclear."

It was also in her 20s that Keys had an emotional meltdown during a photoshoot in 2006 and realized she was about to snap. Instead of turning to "God knows what," Keys decided to cancel all her engagements and set off on a solo pilgrimage to Egypt.

"It was either get the hell away or just explode," she said.

Though she was releasing empowering anthems like "A Woman's Worth" at the time, Keys said they were written in part to convince herself of her own messaging.

"There hasn't been one that I wrote because I actually believed it at the time," she said. "I needed to pull myself out of a rut or a place of confusion.”

Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys

Later, Keys found a balm in yoga and meditation, which she still practices daily.

Now quarantining amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic with her husband Swizz Beatz, 41, and their two sons Egypt, 9, and Genesis, 5, Keys said she's "coming to the place" where she's "able to love more fully in my skin, my imperfections, my feelings, which are so hard to access, because we want to protect our heart, right?"

"That's what we're all doing in some way," she said. "And I think my ability to access that place has brought a deeper connection to other people."

Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys

One surprising revelation Keys said she has learned along the way is that her "humility was sometimes a mask for self-worth issues."

"I was saying, 'Oh, I don't need much! I only need a little bit and I'm fine,'" she said. "I was kind of cutting off my blessings. But I started to recognize, 'Wow, I have this wrong' .... Swizz is such a wild dreamer, and he loves beautiful art, beautiful clothes, and things that are well made. I've learned that I can totally remain humble but I don’t have to cut off the wonderful things that I deserve."

Still, Keys is much more focused on people than things.

"We're only as good as our ability to connect with each other," she said. "Everything else is irrelevant."

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To Keys, the "most important thing" people can do is "take a second to see and appreciate each other as we are," which she said in light of Ahmaud Arbery's death. (Keys' interview and photoshoot — shot entirely by her husband and sons — took place in early May prior to George Floyd's death.)

"We do a really good job of judging each other and assuming who people are when we don’t even know them," she said. "I really believe that we are it — we are what we're waiting for, what we're looking for. The way we raise our kids, the way we choose to be with each other, the way we face the world — that is how things will start to shift."

When it comes to raising her two sons, Keys said she has had plenty of examples of what to do — and not to do — from her own parents. Her mother Terria showed her what it meant to be "tough as nails" and "fiercely loyal" while her father Craig was basically absent.

Though Keys and her father later reconciled, she learned that when it comes to kids, "You need to be there and spend the time, because you never get that back."

The July issue of InStyle is available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 12.