There’s a high-concept idea behind Alicia Keys new album, Keys, and it’s all about contrast and variation. The first half, dubbed Originals, is a stripped-back collection of songs showcasing Keys at her most intimate, with her voice and much-celebrated piano work at the forefront. The second, Unlocked, offers a whole new perspective on those same songs, with added beats, loops and lush orchestrations.
Expo 2020 Dubai will have been delighted that Keys chose to celebrate the launch of that album at Al Wasl Plaza, on Friday, and the show certainly demonstrated all of her versatility, making for a hugely impressive but somewhat disjointed show.
It was billed as "Live in 360”, allowing people across the world to witness the show via streaming platforms, where they could pan around the venue from the comfort of their own living rooms; across the stage, into the audience and up to the skies, where gently oscillating purple blobs gave the sense of being imprisoned within a gigantic lava lamp.
The gentle sound of a string quartet provided Keys with an understated entrance, as she swept past the audience in a flowing gown in a golden hand-embroidered bodysuit paired with a tulle cape with intricate patterns by Dubai designer Furne One, who's behind the Amato Couture label.
She sang a heartfelt tribute to one of her favourite artists, urging us all to be the best we can be: “While you standing tall like the Taj Mahal / Be unforgettable / Like Nat King Cole.”
“Let everything go,” she urged us, “and come with me on this journey.”
For the most part, that journey was a slick sashay through a career of more than two decades, with songs such as 2012’s Girl On Fire and 2009’s Un-Thinkable making a strong connection with the Dubai crowd. Keys, either behind the piano or moving slowly around it, was the primary focus throughout; a small band accompanied her fairly unobtrusively, while a barely-visible dance troupe were a somewhat shadowy presence around the circular stage.
The hits came thick and fast, perhaps even too fast; as the lilting reggae of Wasted Energy (from her last album, Alicia) hurriedly segued into the soulful You Don’t Know My Name, you almost got the sense that it was a race to cram in as many recognised tunes as possible for an audience that don’t get to see her perform very often. Her last two visits to the UAE were in 2019 and 2013 respectively.
It certainly provided a perfect primer for anyone unfamiliar with the depth and range of her work, but you occasionally wished for the songs to be explored more fully, to hear the full extent of her keyboard talent and for the band to be used to their full potential.
The presentation of new songs was consistent with the theme of her new album; she played snatches of them as Originals (quieter, piano-led) and then Unlocked (toughened up) and asked the crowd which version they preferred. Perhaps inevitably, the bigger, beatier versions always got the biggest cheers, perhaps prompting Keys to wonder why she’d bothered with the piano-based versions at all?
But in truth, the most breathtaking moments of the show were the more understated ones. For the free-floating Best Of Me, the lighting in the venue became warmer and more inviting, and we became more drawn into her world. The sustained chords and downtempo beats of Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart, from the album The Element Of Freedom, saw her immaculate voice really take off for the first time. And Old Memories, also taken from the new record and played in full, was truly mesmerising; harking back to 1960s soul and doo-wop, the gentle piano arpeggios and stripped-back accompaniment needed no apology or disclaimer, and the crowd rose to it.
A surprising take on Fallin’, her first and perhaps best-known hit, involved the song presented in jazz-trio style, all extemporised drums and piano flourishes. While you can’t really blame Keys for taking liberties with a song she’s probably had to sing at every show she’s done for the last 20 years, you wondered if the crowd might have preferred a more familiar version.
However, the anthemic Empire State Of Mind and No One both truly soared, the crowd lighting up the venue with their smartphones, Keys in her element, and in the cutest of finales, her two small children, Egypt and Genesis, arriving on stage bearing flowers for mum.
On Friday night, Keys demonstrated that it’s not always easy to be an R&B maestro and piano balladeer simultaneously. But whichever one she happens to turn her hand to, she’s still world-class.