When Alicia Keys performed her spare 2009 single “Un-thinkable (I’m Ready)” at her Staples Center headlining set on Tuesday, she had some unhappy company onstage.
The song, one of her best, is about giving into impulsive love and its consequences, with a minor key mood suggesting she’s prepared to submit completely. It doesn’t need much more than Keys and a microphone to make its point, and she sang it beautifully under cold-hued stage lights. But the song’s spell was broken by her onstage beau, a male interpretive dancer who sulked in a chair for practically the whole song.
As a combination of instrumental brilliance and star prowess, Keys has no peer today. But her singular talent came with its own challenges on Tuesday. How do you take a consummate musician -- one who likes the moody, shape-shifting aspects of modern R&B; -- and make an arena-commanding spectacle of her?
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That’s been Keys’ task on the road ever since 2001’s “Songs in A Minor” heralded her as a major force in pop. Her new album “Girl on Fire” is full of target-marketed brio: songs about rebirth and new confidence that should play perfectly in arenas. But over a decade into her career, it’s clear Keys is still figuring out where to point all that fire -- into her piano or onto the stage? Her sometimes-stunning, sometimes-confusing show ended somewhere in the middle.
When Keys first emerged to a quick refrain from “Empire State of Mind,” she struck a perfect pop-queen silhouette (few artists are as good at standing still in a spotlight). Songs like her early, svelte single “Karma” and “Girl on Fire’s” futuristic “Listen to Your Heart” worked perfectly without her famed piano talent. The crossover between students of Chopin and singers who can burn down a slow-funk simmer like a “A Woman’s Worth” is pretty much limited to Alicia Keys.
But Keys is also unnecessarily self-conscious about reminding pop audiences that she is a Real Musician, and her set designs often seemed torn between Jumbotron close-ups of her hands at work on the piano and animated video clips that tried to veer the show back to pop spectacle.
“Like You’ll Never See Me Again” found her sweet spot with a solitary, soulful performance, and “Fire We Make” was pure neo-D’Angelo baby-making music. But then there were moments when her confidence seemed to dip, such as when she gave the stage over to the Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar to do two of his own songs without Keys even beside him in accompaniment.
Recent singles such as “New Day” and “Girl on Fire,” were on message but not up to the occasion. These songs aspire for transcendance and beg for pyrotechnics and trapeze aerials. If you’re going for an empowerment blowout, go all the way. But she played them with unexpected reserve, and at Staples they didn’t hit the heights she clearly intended when writing them.
Keys’ talent as a writer and performer is so apparent that doing it justice on such a big stage is a challenge. She could play Carnegie Hall, or do a pure R&B; arena blowout. But the hard part is making us believe both at once. There was an awful lot of fire in her Tuesday show, but now she needs to figure out what’s heat and what’s just smoke.
The young L.A. singer Miguel, however, had no such reserve in his opening act. Now that he has a genuine pop hit under his belt (in the Grammy-winning single “Adorn”), he’s hoisted his lecherous freak flag high. His set rocked like Prince on “Where’s the Fun in Forever,” and his falsetto seduced like the guy you follow into a bar’s photo booth after 2 a.m. “Do you like drugs? I feel like we’ve got so much in common now,” he asked on his spacey crooner “Do You…” If the drug is Miguel, then yes, yes, we do.