It’s been four years since Alicia Keys‘ last album Girl On Fire, and just days after announcing her forthcoming studio LP Here — set to be released on Nov. 4 — Alicia Keys treated her hometown New York City to a secret concert on Sunday (Oct. 9). In lieu of headlining a show at an iconic NYC venue like Madison Square Garden or Radio City Music Hall, Keys took her concert to the heart of the “concrete jungle”: Times Square.
Shutting down the popular tourist area, Alicia Keys delivered a captivating hour-and-a-half-long show that also served as a loving tribute to hip-hop history, right near the heart of its birthplace. “Momma cooked the soup, Daddy did the yelling, Uncle was a drunk, cousin was a felon”, Keys sang excitedly, as she kicked off her performance with a new track titled “The Gospel,” discussing the difficulties families encounter living in poverty-stricken communities. “I just have to take two minutes, two seconds to just say WOW,” the au naturel R&B diva exclaimed to the thousands of fans gathered in the Big Apple in her honor. “This is incredible, this is my backyard.”
Before blazing through her catalog of hits, Alicia Keys encouraged the fans looking for “Instagram-able” moments to put down their phones and cameras and “be present in the moment” — a play on her album title Here. She proceeded to sway to a soft-jazzy rendition of her 2003 single, “You Don’t Know My Name”, which hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, and called upon the first of many New York-bred rappers who would later grace the stage. Q-Tip entered the scene, and the two begin mixing throwback songs like the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark” and A Tribe Called Quest’s own “Scenario” and “Award Tour” on top of gritty old-school hip hop style beats — setting the tone for the night’s hip-hop-heavy guest list.
Continuing her ode to hip-hop, she previewed “She Don’t Really Care” – off her upcoming album – an aggressive old school hip hop beat laid behind Keys’ mellifluous vocals. “Now New York, there’s no way I could be in NYC tonight and not bring out on the stage, my brother – Nas!”, Keys announced before the Crown Heights native stepped to rap his verse off the Illmatic classic “One Love” – which was also produced by Q-Tip.
The screens surrounding the “Diary” singer faded to black with raindrops falling as Keys belted out a stripped down version of “Fallin’” – which peaked at No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 — her vocal range heightening with each note she held. Clad in black trousers and a black long-sleeved printed blouse, the R&B diva also donned a head-scarf as she danced across the stage during her Caribbean-tinged single “In Common”.
Extending the “special guest” section to invite to a few more east coast musicians, Philadelphia’s own Questlove hopped on the drums as Connecticut-born John Mayer played Keys’ sideman during the second verse of “If I Don’t Have You”’. Mayer’s assist on guitar led into a duet of his own song “Gravity” with the evening’s star. Keys also performed her latest single “Blended Family (What You Do For Love),” featuring Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, a dedication to her own blended family with producer Swizz Beats. Keys premiered the song and the accompanying visuals on Friday (Oct. 7), just days ahead of her surprise NYC concert.
When her voice isn’t heard blasting through speakers, Alicia Keys’ voice can be heard advocating for social change through philanthropy (Keep A Child Alive) or fronting her own makeup-less movement. She utilizes her platform to encourage and uplift people, and carried on her advocacy during her concert as she covered Bob Marley’s revolutionary anthem “War,” and her own conscious track “We Are Here”.
As if shutting down Times Square wasn’t already a momentous event, Keys raised the bar up a notch for a memorable performance of “Empire State of Mind.” Performing the New York City tribute under the bright lights of Times Square, Brooklyn native Jay Z stepped out to deliver his bars, causing a furor among the concert attendees, and bringing the singer-songwriter to tears.
“Even in this beautiful place where there’s ‘concrete jungles where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do’, there’s still… we as women are treated with such disrespect”, a saddened Keys expressed to the crowd. “Even today, the media is more concerned [with] whether I’m wearing makeup or not.” Alicia Keys graced the MTV Video Music Awards back in August bare-faced, and garnered the attention of news sites all over. She wrote an inspiring letter for Lena Dunham’s feminist website Lenny where Keys declared she’s done covering up, “Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
“And this ignorant, racist, jackass, whose name rhymes “Scump” has to nerve to talk about grabbing pussy?” she continued her speech, encouraging fans to vote and denouncing current Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over his lewd comments.
Alicia Keys briefly silenced the crowd’s roars as she ended the night with a powerful, heart-rending performance of “Holy War” which she previewed during her speech at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. Videos of Trayvon Martin protestors and America flooded Times Square’s large screens and the vibrant screens later switched to black and white writing, which read: “Aids is over,” “Violence is over,” “Sexism is over.”
The thought-provoking ballad transitioned into John Lennon’s timeless “Imagine,” with Keys celebrating the late legend who would’ve turned 76 on Oct. 9. Alicia Keys ended the night inspiring her fans to fight for social change and equality. “Maybe we could love somebody, instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.”
The performance will be televised via BET at 9 p.m. ET on Nov. 3, the day before her newest offering Here arrives. Check out the setlist below.
’28 Thousand Days”
“You Don’t Know My Name”
“She Don’t Really Care”
“One Love” (Nas)
“If I Don’t Have You”
“Gravity” (John Mayer)
“Blended Family (What You Do For Love)”
“War” (Bob Marley)
“We Are Here”
“Empire State of Mind”