Alicia Keys, 02 Arena, London

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The Independent Culture

Alicia Keys has never struggled to draw in the arena crowds thanks to her jaw-dropping talent, beauty and stirring songs.

She usually brings youthful theatrics to her shows and even if these were to go horribly wrong (unlikely at this stage in her career) she has only to flash that winning smile and retreat to the safety of her Yamaha to win the crowds back.

The first part of this new show on her Freedom Tour seemed set to be another one of the 29-year-old's curiously clever ideas, themed around political rebellion and freedom. She writhes around in a cage to show opener "Caged Bird" with all the charm of an ingénue pretending to be dominatrix, while a vivacious dancer flings himself around it like the slave who got away. But as she escapes and launches into accomplished renditions of "Love is Blind", "You Don't Know My Name" and "Fallin'", the lovey-dovey sentiment and stilted choreography appears at odds with the historical images flashing angrily above her. It's hard not to feel guilty for ignoring clips of the 1963 March on Washington because all you really want to do is wave lighters in the air to "Karma".

The minor histrionics are short-lived and the rest of the show subdued. But with a humble band and only two outfit changes – a considerable insult to her rivals Lady Gaga and Beyoncé – she still conveys an effortless genius on the heartfelt "Pray for Forgiveness", and "Like You'll Never See Me Again", delivered with Pentecostal fervour.

From here on in, it's nothing but powerhouse vocals and sing-a-long choruses, topped off with Keys' grace and wrapped up with the anthemic "Empire State of Mind (Part II)". But while you have to admire the radiance in her balladry, it's a pity she couldn't keep up the pizzazz of the show's first part – as conflicted as it was – for a little longer.

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