ou know why Alicia Keys’ collaboration with Usher on “My Boo” was so refreshing (and such a smash)? Because it showed her in a different light: having fun, being playful, and Lord was that nice. “If I Ain’t Got You” is a brilliant song, a love ballad that’s now and forever a standard—we’ll be listening to it in 25 years, no doubt—but it, like most of the rest of Keys’ oeuvre, is so damned serious. Sometimes I just want her to lighten up. You’re in your early 20s, babygirl, and a global star, why not enjoy your success a little bit? Please!
I’ve been rooting for Keys from day one. She’s undeniably mega-talented, a fine song stylist, a great singer, a good pianist, a surprisingly good bandleader, and a good songwriter and producer (that cover all the bases?). Her initial spate of Grammy wins thrilled me (though I hope we can all admit now that Songs In A Minor was a bit overpraised—which may have led to The Diary of Alicia Keys getting a little less praise than it was due). But I’ve always been frustrated that there’s so little sense of fun, of joie de vivre, in her art; even Laurie Anderson knows when to laugh, y’know?
Unfortunately, if Keys’ new Unplugged is any kind of indicator, that’s not apt to change any time soon. Don’t misunderstand me; it’s a fine album. Keys was a terrific choice with whom to relaunch Unplugged as an MTV franchise, as she’s got the songs and chops to do it and do so well.
Let’s get this out of the way right off: it’s time for black folks to stop loving on Maroon5’s Adam Levine so much. Ying Yang Twins? Weird and okay. Kanye? Alright. But duetting with Alicia on no less a hoary choice than “Wild Horses”? This is where I draw the line. That having been said, when it comes to old soul classics, Ms. Keys has clearly earned the right to cover any of ‘em she wishes. Her take on Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” (a #13 hit in 1964, on Tamla, and if you don’t know it you should) is just as gorgeously pleading as Holloway’s original, and the arrangement (largely piano, strings, and horns) gives it the right ‘60s feel without coming off as inexorably retro. Gladys Knight’s “If I Was Your Woman” fares even better, as you can hear Keys this close to spontaneous combustion, she smolders her way through it so. Knight should be (and, I’d bet, is) proud.
Keys attempts to add two songs of her own to the pantheon with the introduction here of the new tracks “Unbreakable” and “Stolen Moments.” “Unbreakable” is a lovely keyboard-driven ode to middle-class black love (“We could fight like Ike and Tina, or give back like Bill and Camille [Cosby],” it opens) of the ilk no one’s doing these days save for the likes of Anita Baker, who shall we say generally hits a different demographic. It’s one of Keys’ best songs yet in a career looking more and more like it’s gonna be packed with ‘em. “Stolen Moments” was co-written with a pair of eminences no less than the Reverend Al Green and the great jazzman Wah Wah Watson; it’s a pleasantly jazzy song that you’ll forget five minutes after listening to it.
The Keys catalog, of course, receives a good rinse through. “Fallin’” is clearly meant to be the showstopper, but comes off a bit melodramatic and overdone, tough like a turkey left in the oven a little too long. “Karma” is a bit limp on record, but is opened up here and juiced with some anabolics (and goes straight into her first album’s Timbaland co-write “Heartburn”) to great advantage. “How Come You [sic] Don’t Call Me [Anymore],” however, is still better as a Prince b-side. The one-two punch of “Diary” and “You Don’t Know My Name” late in the proceedings is oh-so-good: “Diary” benefits from the addition of a flute, of all things, and “You Don’t” is just pretty much too good to fail in any capacity. Unplugged’s true showstopper is “If I Ain’t Got You,” performed here just with piano and voices, and devastating in its impact.
Both the show and album are closed with a big hip-hop jam with Mos Def, Common, and Damian Marley popping up for “Love It Or Leave It Alone” and “Welcome to Jamrock.” Clearly, Keys is trying to lighten up with this, but it comes off as basically a “Look at my cool celebrity friends!” move. Musically uninspiring, this medley feels and sounds tacked-on. I’m definitely recommending Unplugged—with reservations, but it’s still a recommendation—but damn, I just wish the fun Keys seems to have on stage would translate more clearly to record. In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting, ‘cause frankly, she’s worth it.