Forget that it's awfully hard to call this live recording Unplugged.
Unlike the early installments of the MTV series, which focused on a performer accompanied only with an acoustic guitar, resulting in unsurprisingly simple affairs, Alicia Keys' Unplugged is big, splashy, and immodest -- even if her guitarist is playing acoustic and she plays a piano, not a synth, the extra vocalists, horn section, strings, and full rhythm section complete with electric bass makes this anything but "unplugged." But that doesn't really matter, since this is presented and marketed as a live album more than an acoustic record, and, as a live album, it's OK.
Certainly, Keys and her 16 supporting musicians are professionals and they deliver tight, polished grooves, giving her plenty of space to improv and vamp, which is in contrast to her controlled studio albums.
But that's not the only way Unplugged differs from Keys' other two albums.
This, more than either Songs in A Minor or The Diary, illustrates why Alicia Keys fits into the post-hip-hop soul world: she places groove and feel above the song.
Nowhere is this more evident than her version here of Prince's "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" (which she straightens out and truncates to "How Come You Don't Call Me") where she speeds along to the bridge after singing the first verse, then just dispenses with the song altogether, spending the rest of the time vamping, occasionally going back to the bridge.
Since she sounds good and the band sounds good, this works pretty well on a sheer sonic level -- it's good late-night mood music -- but there's no sense of storytelling or momentum to her performances: she starts the song in one place and stays there riding in circles until the end.
With the exception of her duet with Maroon 5's Adam Levine on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" -- duets, by their very nature, necessitate that they be performed as complete songs -- that's true of nearly every cut here, whether they're originals or covers; the songs are stripped down to their hooks and grooves.
Over these rhythmic vamps, Keys does have some impressive vocal runs where she departs from the original melody and glides by on the sheer sound of her voice, but when the songs are reduced to the their bare essence, her vocalizing doesn't become a way of telling a story, it becomes the reason she's playing music in the first place.
While that doesn't make for a bad listen -- she has genuine talent as a singer and her band is sleek and skilled, so they can sell this supple, seductive sound quite well -- it doesn't make for a particularly compelling one, either.