Even when she sings about the flames of passion, Alicia Keys’s veins pump ice water.
The 32-year-old R&B star was deft and meticulous at the Verizon Center on Sunday night, ruminating on the hottest of human emotions with cool precision. The performance lacked personality and spontaneity, but in her finest moments, Keys’s moderation felt like elegance.
And that’s rare. Pop concerts of this scale are often compromises — singers either sacrifice the actual singing for breath-depleting choreography, or they plant their feet and hope their delivery is gripping enough to keep the upper deck from getting restless.
On Sunday, Keys struck a smart balance of the two. When she wasn’t hammering away behind a piano, she crisscrossed the stage in slow, seductive steps while a team of back-up dancers convulsed in her immediate orbit. With her supporting cast spilling all the sweat, the singer could devote her lungs to the music.
She appeared to need all of the oxygen she could get. Keys has always owed a huge debt to the melodic sensibilities of Prince, but her choruses can pack an explosive charge that approaches the fireworks of the late Whitney Houston.
Keys was at her most forceful during “Fallin’,” the chart-topper that signaled her grand arrival 12 Aprils ago. And while other deep-catalogue hits — “You Don’t Know My Name,” “A Woman’s Worth” — were weighed down by more bloated arrangements, they were enough to remind fans that Keys has kept urban radio in a headlock for more than a decade.
Only now, with radio’s influence waning, Keys has turned to corporate sponsorships, fortifying her media presence through ads for a wireless hand-held device and an international bank. Thankfully, the singer didn’t shout out either of the corporations during her time on stage, which was (strangely, sadly) reason to cheer.
Also worth cheering: the new stuff. Selections from Keys’s most recent album, “Girl on Fire,” were the show’s most subtle and sensual. During “101,” Keys dipped into a raspy lower register that made her sound human, then blasted upward toward the superhuman. And with “Fire We Make,” her quiet-stormy collaboration with Maxwell, she was every bit as smooth as her pre-recorded duet partner. (When Maxwell’s face appeared on a pair of symmetrical video screens, fans howled as if the man had actually stepped into the building.)
A slightly thinner scream greeted “Girl on Fire,” Keys’s latest anthem about a determined daydreamer who’s “got her head in the clouds, and she’s not backing down.” It samples the drums of Billy Squier’s 1980 arena-rocker “The Big Beat” — a boom-boom-crack that’s mapped out the skeletal system of numerous rap songs, including hits from Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z and Dizzee Rascal.
On stage, Keys didn’t fall back on the sample. She sauntered up to a pair of drums and pounded out the rhythm herself, singing at the top of her voice.
She didn’t miss a beat, flub a note or break a sweat.