Ahead of hosting this year's Grammy Awards, Alicia Keys tells PEOPLE all about her stressful first time at the 2002 show
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The year was 2002 and for breakout R&B star Alicia Keys, Grammys night felt like a perfect storm.

“Oh my gosh, that particular experience is so seared into my brain and in my DNA and memory,” Keys, 38, tells PEOPLE, opening up about her upcoming hosting duties for music’s biggest night.

Then nominated for six awards, Keys says she was fresh off of touring for her hit debut album Songs in A Minor, and she by no means felt ready for a major award show moment.

“I was coming off that first tour where we’d recreated the whole brownstone stoop thing, the payphone on the corner like where I grew up in New York,” she says. “So I was literally transitioning from being that girl, walking down the street, hopping the A train, into this recording artist, nominated for Grammys. It was unreal.”

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Alicia Keys
| Credit: SGranitz/WireImage

The day of the show, “I was sick as ever,” says the Fallin’ singer. “I had a head cold and congestion and everything felt like a dream.”

Keys was worried that dream might turn nightmare. “I was partially terrified because I had to sing a new song for the first time and I was fatigued from touring.” While practicing, “I could barely sing, I could barely get the notes out.”

But come show time the audience was none the wiser. “We had to work some wonders, Vitamin B, something, to get me to sing for three minutes. It was equally exhilarating and terrifying.”

Her big performance aside, all eyes were on Keys throughout that night as she scooped up five awards. “I didn’t want to trip up the stairs. I remember seeing Gwen Stefani and Céline Dion and I was like, what planet am I on?’ It was unforgettable.”

Be sure to check out PEOPLE’s full Grammys coverage to get the latest news on music’s biggest night.

Alicia Keys
| Credit: Jaclyn Martinez/Courtesy of AK Worldwide, Inc

It’s shaping up to be an unforgettable night again this year, with Keys as the first woman to helm the show in 14 years and with five women (Cardi B, Janelle Monáe, Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile and H.E.R.) nominated in the coveted album of the year category.

Asked if she thinks it’s the Year of the Woman, “One billion percent,” Keys says emphatically. “It’s the Century of the Woman as far as I’m concerned. It’s all around us, politically and here in music. We’re more creative than ever before.

The 61st Grammy Awards will take place at Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Sunday, Feb. 10. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 8 p.m. EST.