Last night, Alicia Keys kicked off her grandly titled the Element of Freedom: The Lecture and Performance Series, a seminar held in the conspicuously academic setting of NYU’s Skirball Center. The private gig, however, came off less like a class with a famous guest instructer than a live infomercial for her new album — also called The Element of Freedom. The setup was Inside the Actors Studio–esque, with MTV’s Sway playing the part of a fawning James Lipton. After a heavy-handed video introduction (“Twelve Grammys! Over 25 million albums sold worldwide!”), the two sat down so that Sway could ask Keys questions and so that she could pretend she hadn’t already read over said questions backstage. We found out that Keys thinks former 4 Non Blondes front woman and go-to pop songwriter Linda Perry is a brilliant musician and that “songs” (like, songs in general) “are so, so good.” We even got a touch of New Age-y motivational seminar, with Keys repeatedly pushing the excitable college kids to “believe in yourselves,” “express what’s in your heart,” and so on.
All was forgiven, though, when Keys transitioned to the “Performance” part of the evening. After a few tracks from the bubbly opening act, Jermaine Paul — who, we swear to God, dedicated a song to “all the ladies in the house” — Keys and her band wisely kicked off with the “Empire State of Mind” chorus, and then ran semi-chronologically through her singles up through the new one, “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” another totally awesome song that happens to be about how rich, famous, and occasionally empty inside Alicia Keys feels. As the kids streamed out (“Did you fucking love it?” “Yes”), Sway made sure to ask them to Twitter about the show.