Neo-soul, by definition, is generally “unplugged,” eschewing programmed beats, synths, and samples and relying instead on old-school R&B qualities like live instrumentation and old-fashioned crooning. So it’s no surprise there isn’t much difference between Alicia Keys’s studio creations (as well as her other live performances) and her stint on MTV’s once-again resurrected Unplugged. Grumbles that Keys’s Unplugged isn’t faithful to its namesake is even sillier considering that, in the days since Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora sat on stools and played “Livin’ on a Prayer” on acoustic guitars, “unplugged” has become more of a metaphorical term than a literal one. And the electricity in Keys’s Unplugged is the least of its problems. After a stirring a cappella intro, the set gets off to a shaky start with a medley of “Karma” and “Heartburn,” two standout tracks from the singer’s sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys. And talking isn’t Keys’ strong point, evidenced by her awkward interactions with the audience and an uncomfortable compliment-exchange with unexpected duet partner Adam Levine of Maroon 5. By “A Woman’s Worth” and the new single “Unbreakable” (with its amusing nods to “Oprah and Stedmond” and “Will and Jada” and an electric bassline that strangely evokes Super Mario Bros.), Keys starts to warm up, lifting her original compositions to soaring new heights, the previously unreleased “Stolen Moments” and a mostly understated “Fallin’” among them. On the other hand, an abbreviated “You Don’t Know My Name,” truly a producer’s creation, falls flat here, and she treats covers of Gladys Knight’s “If I Was Your Woman” and “Every Little Bit Hurts” like vocal auditions and not the blank canvases of an interpretive artist. It’s a talent that, perhaps, comes with time and experience, even for an artist so matured in other areas. It’s in this way that Keys’s—and Unplugged’s—biggest flaw gets the big glaring spotlight.
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