Remember Alicia Keys? The first version.
Nine years ago the classically trained pianist and vocalist burst on to the music scene. In 2001 when the New York native dropped her debut album, Songs in A Minor, she was a cornrowed, oversized fedora wearing, nearly androgynous stick battling acne. Talent-wise, she came bearing gifts. "Fallin'," her quaking first single about plunging into the depths of love, sat on top of Billboard's Hot 100 chart for weeks. A Minor sold six million copies and earned five Grammys in 2002. But in many ways, the youngster (then 20) whose personality was both earnest and endearing, but whose stage performance was stiff when not attached to a piano had blooming to do. And she's tried. Some changes have come naturally. Since that first album, she's seemingly been attempting to make the transition from introspective neo-soul star to a pop diva possibly challenging her buddy Beyoncé. But not seamlessly.
Which brings us to New York City's legendary Madison Square Garden, where her Freedom Tour stopped recently. Keys — on the road through April 10 supporting her latest album, The Element of Freedom — grew up just blocks away from the Garden in the city's Hell's Kitchen area. She packed the arena with an eclectic audience made up of the young, old, hood, elegant and flamboyant. After a brief performance from R&B upstart Melanie Fiona and a combination of silky coos and deep whispers from Robin Thicke, the stage was set for Keys.
Apparently not a fan of subtlety, Alicia opted for literalism by starting her show imprisoned in a jail cell singing her ballad from A Minor, "Caged Bird." She then bent the bars and freed herself. Get the message?
In a red coat, black tank top, matching skintight sequined pants and black too high heels, this was not the Keys we know. This was Alicia Keys 4.0, if you will. Her long hair was out free from braids or beads, wavy and flowing. Several minutes passed before she hit a chord on her keyboard. And the once frail R&B starlet has curves now, which she worked. During a synthed up version of her Kanye West-produced 2003 hit "You Don't Know My Name," she joined her three dancers for a few choreographed steps. It obviously isn't her forte, but she tried. The song's change — originally it was a ballad where Alicia's a shy Cinderella hoping to be noticed by her Prince Charming — felt forced. However it made perfect sense coming from a woman trying to shake off the girl-next-door image.
Keys was at her best settling down at her piano. After a dramatic pause and water break, she jumped into "Fallin'" as a burning, bleeding heart dripped on the video screen.
She stepped away for second to sing her jazzy "I Need You" from her third album As I Am. But quickly returned to the keys after her acoustic piano (again, literally) said "Play me" via the LED lights on its side. She ran through measured cuts like "Pray for Forgiveness," "Diary" and one of her few slow jams, "Like You'll Never See Me Again."
Alicia's sex appeal cranked up a few notches as she turned the piano into her mattress and lay on top of it during "Wait Til You See My Smile." Such a display was not her style, nor would it have been desirable years ago. Similar to the guest star she'd soon surprise her fans with, Alicia's a sultry vixen now, as well as an artist.
After a brief intermission, Keys returned in a white gown to perform her soft eighties-feel ballad "Sleeping with a Broken Heart" and then her female empowerment anthem "Superwoman." When she settled back in her piano chair for "If I Ain't Got You" and "No One," her commanding voice served as validation for a sellout crowd. Keys then angelically floated off the stage, but there was a buzz for one more song.
With Beyoncé hitting the stage earlier, anticipation that her husband and rap kingpin Jay-Z would soon follow to perform New York's new anthem, "Empire State of Mind" built. Keys came out once more — this time in a white sequined tank top and black tights, quietly performing her version of the smash. Keys' boyfriend , producer Swizz Beatz, joyously interrupted her to perform his hook on Jay-Z's "On to the Next One." It should be noted that years ago Keys would often deflect questions about whether or not she was dating her production partner Kerry "Krucial" Brothers. She is now openly dating the newly divorced Beatz.
Just as fast as Swizz appeared, revving the crowd into a frenzy, he left. However, there was no let down.
"Thank you, New York," said New York's hometown songstress after hugging Jay-Z. "I just want to encourage you all to find your freedom." Obviously, at 29, she's found hers.
Alicia's show was not over-the-top. It was overstated. Warhol-like images of President John F. Kennedy, Ghandi, Bob Marley and Princess Diana made messages like "Fight" and "Rise Up" presented on the video screen unnecessary.
Pleasantly obvious was that Alicia's a woman, not a girl. On top of the roaring musical talent and foundation Keys came in with, she's got moves and attitude. She has flare. Hip switch by switch and dance step by step, she's grown plenty over her career.
As with her performance overall, when keeping it simple she was at her greatest. Sure, there are some bugs to upgrade. But the added bells and whistles throughout the years haven't hurt. The 4.0 version suits many just fine.
Brad Wete's a young Manhattanite who writes for AOL, Vibe and Entertainment Weekly.