As Alicia Keys’ career has borne out, merely being a talented vocalist or musician isn’t enough these days. Keys’ albums are tricked-up with beats that don’t always feel natural; on stage, she’s saddled with choreographed, costume-heavy production numbers. (And yes, movies are next; she’ll star in her first feature, Smoking Aces, in 2006.) Unplugged, which marks the revival of MTV’s show of the same name, is a predictable next step, meant to ram home the idea that Keys is a classy ”artist.” But by focusing on Alicia Keys the musician (rather than Alicia Keys the empire), it’s also the most cohesive of her three albums.
Granted, there’s very little ”unplugged” about arrangements that include string and horn players, backup singers, and a band with the occasional electric keyboard. But clones of vintage soul rarely get better than ”A Woman’s Worth,” ”Diary,” and ”If I Ain’t Got You,” all of which benefit from the series’ (relatively) unencumbered format and medium-simmer grooves that suit Keys just fine. Keeping her melismatic tendencies in check, she does right by an actual R&B oldie, ”Every Little Bit Hurts,” although her new ”Unbreakable” is essentially tabloid fodder with a beat: Keys name-checks ”Will and Jada,” ”Oprah and Stedman,” and even ”the Jacksons” as examples of role models for ”our dreams.” All together now: The Jacksons?
Keys needn’t have hauled out Maroon 5’s ordinary-throated Adam Levine for a diluted take on the Stones’ ”Wild Horses,” and a left-field cameo by Damian Marley on a cover of his hit ”Welcome to Jamrock” just feels opportunistic. But for once, Unplugged largely leaves Keys’ runaway careerism in the dressing room, where it belongs.