"Are you in love tonight?" asked Alicia Keys of her sold-out Staples Center audience last night in Los Angeles, the fourth stop on her North American arena tour. It was early in a night of affection and uplift from the singer, as she sat alone at the piano for a delicate and emotional "Not Even the King."
The song is from last year's Girl on Fire, and it was co-written with British singer Emeli Sandé. Keys has been calling it her favorite song, and she sings its simple message of feeling over profit most nights to her two-year-old son: "What good is a castle surrounded by people/But ain't got a friend that's not on the payroll?"
At 32, Keys is already a dozen years into her career, still operating with a sensibility both hip-hop modern and rooted in the best traditions of classic American soul. She opened her two-hour performance with a few jazzy, smoldering moments of "Empire State of Mind," her collaboration with Jay-Z, which would bookend the night with endless awe and dedication for her hometown.
From there she moved from grand piano to upright to Hammond B3, standing up for certain songs to vamp and twist and sway. "Dance with me, L.A.!" she declared during the new album's "When It's All Over," which briefly traded R&B warmth for dance-floor heat, as Keys lamented the end of a romance: "At least I got to love you."
Girl on Fire is her first new album since motherhood and her marriage to hip-hop artist and producer Swizz Beatz (who could be seen dancing by the soundboard as excitedly as any fan). Critical reaction has been wildly mixed, but onstage many of the new songs seethed and bounced as effectively as anything since her acclaimed 2001 debut, Songs in A Minor.
From her second album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, was "You Don't Know My Name," which unfolded again like classic Seventies soul, as Keys acted out a phone call with one of her dancers: "I want to call him and tell him what I'm feeling, but I'm so nervous . . ." In a similar heartbreak vein was the new "Tears Always Win," accompanied by her four-piece band and a trio of backup singers, while Keys tilted her head back to wail and sway.
The stage production was dynamic and tasteful, without ever going for overstatement. There were big screens of moving images to accompany her music, but no fireworks or laser beams, and virtually no costume changes – and none needed, as she arrived in a sparking black fedora and form-fitting outfit with plunging neckline.
For "Diary," she sat at an upright piano, her vocals hushed and dramatic, as the big screen behind her became a huge blackboard flashing bits of lyrics: "Me and you," "Loyalty," "Safe" and "Just think of you and me," as Keys' backup singers wailed warmly along with her.
As Keys began the rolling piano melody of "No One," she said, "I'm going to ask you to help celebrate life, celebrate love," and fans across the arena lifted up glowing cell phones to the rousing, emotional ballad. For the new album's title song, Keys pounded a pair of drums at center stage, then stepped away to sing and slowly dance along the edge.
Keys' voice was dependably strong and crisp for her duet with a video of Maxwell on their "Fire We Make" collaboration (from Girl on Fire), and amid the cascading piano runs of "If I Ain't Got You" (a song equal parts Stevie Wonder and Whitney Houston). As always, much of it was fueled by the singer's romantic nature and her gift for rich melody.
After another solo piano turn with "101," Keys brought up L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar for a speedy run through his "Poetic Justice," bringing a kinetic vocal punch to the Staples stage. Keys stepped away as the Compton artist then slipped into the brooding rhymes of "Swimming Pools (Drank)," another fast-rising track from his ambitious major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city.
At the night's end, Keys returned to "Empire State of Mind," with a clip of Jay-Z rapping on the big screen to open the song along with a quartet of dancers in colorful street gear. Keys reemerged in her only costume change of the concert, singing the passionate ode to the five boroughs in a shimmering purple gown. It was a vivid, final accent to a big night essentially dedicated to Al Green's timeless mantra of love and happiness.