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Staples Center, Los Angeles (Monday, May 5)

Alicia Keys lies squarely in the middle of a pop foursome cornered by Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Beyonce. But on a cool Monday evening at the sold-out Staples Center, Keys brought a grounded sensibility that tapped her contemporaries' strengths without pandering to the dreaded middle of the road.

Keys possesses neither Carey's stratospheric vocal range nor Beyonce's blast-furnace stage persona. Rather, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly distaff Staples constituency's approval, she more closely aligns with Blige as a girl-from-the-'hood-done-good -- the tough-minded suffragette reflected in such songs as "Superwoman" and "A Woman's Worth."

A video featured Cedric the Entertainer as a comical pastor who urges a young Keys to go out from the church and sang to the masses (but don't forget your 10% tithe!). As the strains of the piano intro from her latest album, "As I Am," played over a well-amped sound system, Keys strode onto the futuristically designed stage dressed in fashionable slacks and a silver beaded top. She switched tops and slacks throughout the evening but never crossed into stagey dresses. Mind you, her preternatural beauty shined on large screens that augmented and amplified her talents.

Although Keys exploits that girl-from-the-'hood persona, her rootsy, vulnerable side was revealed on "Butterflyz," the piano-driven "Prelude to a Kiss," "My Boo," "Like You'll Never See Me Again," a particularly incendiary version of the Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis composition "Tender Love" and "Diary," featuring her outstanding background vocalist Jermaine Paul.

The momentum built steadily as Keys played her classics "Fallin'," "How Come You Don't Call Me Anymore," and the Grammy-winning "No One" before being swallowed in fog and lights, a la "Close Encounters."

Keys' growth from an innocent R&B act to pop superstar in seven years is impressive. She stressed simplicity with deft touches of flash, thus avoiding the trapping of artists who might be more gifted vocally or stagewise by letting the music hold center stage.

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