When a beaming Alicia Keys graced Rolling Stone's cover in November 2001, fist thrust triumphantly in a Lennonesque New York City T-shirt, the promise seemed to be: Here, America. Here is your new face of pop music for a generation to come.
On Sunday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Keys proved that as a pop artist, she remains in a class all her own, no matter how many Beyonces, Rihannas and Gagas the world throws her way.
But more than a decade after her debut, has she lived up to that 2001 promise?
It's a tough question to answer. When she's on, no one can touch Keys' gift for soulful, stirring pop and R&B. And yet she drew but 7,959 fans on Sunday night — a smaller audience, certainly, than you'd expect for Beyonce, Rihanna or Lady Gaga.
To be sure, Keys' voice today remains a spine-tingling siren on that singular opening note of Fallin', her Grammy-winning breakthrough hit. Every retro-'60s hitmaker who's come and gone since 2001 (we're looking at you, Adele, Amy Winehouse and Bruno Mars) owes Keys and Fallin' a debt of gratitude.
Each of Keys' albums since 2001 has brought bigger and more expansive hits, from the moving If I Aint Got You to the global and grandiose No One. But every time she did nothing more than sit and sing in the spotlight — as on the vulnerable Diary or gospel-confessional love song Not Even The King — it was simply stirring. The vulnerability of 101 was breathtaking, with Keys' lonesome vocals echoing off the empty upper deck.
Still, there are moments when big and bombastic suit Keys. She teased Empire State of Mind, her anthemic collaboration with Jay-Z, at the beginning, and performed it in full as the encore, assisted by a video cameo by Hova himself. In those moments, you did not see an overreaching Girl on Fire. You saw a beaming girl from New York City, concrete jungle, where dreams are made. That Alicia, we'll never stop loving.
Before Keys, opening act Miguel spun, stripped, skanked and sexed his way through tracks from 2012's boudoir-knocking Kaleidoscope Dream. For a far-too-scant 45 minutes, the recent Grammy winner performed like a man who's having the time of his life en route to the top of the R&B world.
Wearing ivory kicks and a rascally smile, Miguel employed Magic Mike-worthy moves throughout the searing Use Me, on which his vocals soared from ecstatic moan to orgasmic falsetto. And midway through his smash hit Adorn, he must have decided the stage could no longer contain his ebullience, as he dove to the floor for a lascivious loop around the Forum floor. It was free, freaky and above all fun.
Based on his dynamic stage presence, Miguel's star isn't slowing anytime soon. A Rolling Stone cover of his own might not be far off.