Alicia Keys

Album review: Plugging into her acoustic side    ·    October 13th, 2005

4 Stars
Alicia Keys
(J Records)

Back in 2002, the MTV-inspired Unplugged series, which was created to place artists outside of the realm of their artistic comfort, was at a crossroad. With the release of Lauren Hill’s Unplugged Version 2.0, the series had surely stretched the limits of its mission by placing the then queen of hip-hop on a stage performing a collection of new material with an acoustic guitar, an instrument Hill admittedly was still getting used to.

While the album brought out a continuous stream of emotion, it failed to achieve the level of acclaim that more historic Unplugged releases such as Nirvana or Eric Clapton had.

This week, Unplugged dusts itself off and is back into the level of prominence it once held with a stirring performance by Alicia Keys. Unlike Hill’s 2002 release, Keys opts to rely less on experimentation and more on her tested originals and classics.

At least in this 16-track performance, Keys, today’s queen of hip-hop, has made a decision that pays off.

Backed by a talented horn and string section, as well as a series of qualified backup singers, the highlights of Keys’ performances come not from her interaction with said accompaniment, but rather when her voice is left to reign free and with little interference.

The best example of this can be heard in “Diary,” the psuedo-title track to her 2003 release The Diary of Alicia Keys.

On this track, Keys, accompanied by gentle piano playing, belts out the lines, “I will keep your secrets / Just think of me as a page in your diary.”

With a voice so angelic, such promises seem easy to trust. An equally polished and even more riveting selection comes with Keys’ performance of her popular “Fallin’.”

The radio hit introduces itself with an eerie series of call-and-response wails that lead into Keys’ expertise - expertly crafted piano playing topped off by the sounds of arguably the most vocally gifted female in music today. One of the album’s few shortcomings is Keys’ failed duet with Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, in a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”

While Keys’ piano playing and vocal prowess are not lost on the track, Levine clearly lacks the vocal range of a Mick Jagger, and thus the song comes off more as a forced marriage of the current pop climate than a fair embodiment of the Stones’ classic.

Despite struggling in the “Wild Horses” duet, Keys succeeds in covering several other classics, including Gladys Knight’s “If I Was Your Woman” and Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me.”

Keys ends this sure-to-be future classic in style with a riveting, trumpet driven version of “Love It or Leave It Alone/Welcome to Jamrock,” in which she is joined by Mos Def and Common.

Keys’ Unplugged performance serves as the most recent pronouncement that she has arrived at the highest level of music superstardom. In the current music climate, Keys is quickly becoming the queen with keys granting her full access to the castle.

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