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Keys plugs into MTV’s ‘Unplugged’

Broderick Henry | Thursday, September 29, 2005

When MTV Unplugged premiered in the late 1980s, it started what many consider a mini-musical revolution.

In its infancy, the hour-long show consisted of major pop acts performing their hits with only acoustic instruments. Since its inception, Unplugged has been credited with making pure artistry and musical arrangements relevant in popular music.

The series has grown so influential that a poor showing could mean the crippling of an artist’s career, while a great performance may offer an artist legendary status. Few can forget Nirvana’s appearance on the show, which marked the last televised performance by Kurt Cobain. Music lovers are still clamoring over Jay-Z’s 2001 appearance, as it not only solidified him as the best rapper in the game but also showed the world what hip-hop could and should be.

Alicia Keys was confronted with such a reality when she decided to resurrect the series after a three-year shelving by MTV. Friday the Grammy winner made sure to acknowledge the magnanimity of moment and not disappoint.

Keys’ performance, which was actually taped July 14 at Brooklyn’s Harvey Theater, began rather clumsily with the young star singing a prayer acappela. In a sense, Keys was invoking the Muses for inspiration much like the Greeks did years ago. However, the attempt fell flat because she lacks the vocal stylings of a Beyonce to sing without musical accompaniment.

Once the artist positioned herself behind her piano, however, she would shine brightly.

A medley of “Karma” and “Heartburn,” two songs off Keys’ most recent album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, was performed first. The hip-hop inspired records sounded strikingly different with string and percussion instruments rather than synthesized beats. In fact, they seemed much more playful and funkier. Together the songs gave the show a much needed burst of energy and were a great recovery from the opening.

Next, Keys elected to perform “Woman’s Worth,” one of her best songs to date. The artist’s thick vocals engulfed the piano accompaniment as she sang sincerely. The warning to male listeners,”You will lose if you choose to refuse to put her first,” appeared to be a message Keys knew all to well. At the same time, “Worth” provided viewers their first opportunity to experience Keys’ incredible backup vocalists. Their well-crafted and beautifully sung harmonies served as a sharp contrast to the songstress’ sultry voice. They would earn their keep this evening as they made each song come alive.

Part of Keys’ appeal is her ability to take a classic piano medley and make it her own. Often, the process involves sampling other artists’ work, but occasionally it means reviving a well-known hit of your own like “If I Ain’t Got You.” Keys chose to sing the song in a lower key with much more emphasis on the vocals rather than the music. The new arrangement definitely gave a new feel to the ballad.

Yet, the highlight of the evening was “Diary.” Keys and backup singer Paul Green played wonderfully off each other. When Keys reached for her upper vocal register, Green went right up there with her.

Overall, there were one or two missteps, including “Every Little Bit Hurts.” The song stretched the star’s range and highlighted her tendency to shout on records with gospel influences. It is clear that Keys still has a fair amount of growth to undergo. Yet, at this point, she supersedes any of her peers in ambition, creativity and overall artistry. From this appearance, it is obvious she is a legend in the making.