Who is Alicia Keys: an introspective singer-songwriter or a high-stepping diva? A brooding star of soul or a beaming princess of pop?
Keys would probably say she's all of those things - a point of view underscored by her brand new "Freedom Tour," which hit the Garden last night.
The unfortunate truth is, Keys plays some roles far better than others, and her attempt to fitfully shuttle between all of them didn't do her show last night any favors.
In a fit of literalism, she opened the "Freedom Tour" by breaking out of a cage.
From there, it never became clear exactly what kind of brutal enslavement Keys had to overcome in her life to get to this point, though we did see video images flashed behind her of brand-name liberators, from Gandhi to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to, for some reason, Princess Diana.
In between, Keys kept up a nonstop string of self-empowerment messages. Video screens carried entreaties like "Rise Up," "Fight" and "Hope," while Keys spat out bromides like "you can feel free to be yourself" and "there's nothing that can't be yours." Even Oprah might have found it a bit much.
A lot of the music and theatrics of the night seemed just as overstated. Dressed in black pants and a long-tailed, red coat, Keys looked like a lion tamer at the circus, ready to both dazzle and dictate.
In an effort to keep up with her fancy dancers, Keys strutted and posed through many songs, even though neither activity rates as her forte.
She goosed up so much of the music, even a more measured piece like "Fallin' " was anxiously retrofitted with an overactive bass line and an all-too-busy rhythm.
In some ways, the strategy mirrored the direction of Keys' new CD, "The Element of Freedom."
It moves her toward a slicker brand of '80s anthemic pop and away from her earlier brand of neo-'70s soul.
Last night, it took all too long for Keys to settle down to her main instrument, the acoustic piano. When she did, she hinted at the appeal of her best studio cuts and finer live performances.
In "Diary," she luxuriated over the rolling piano chords and built to a righteous shout.
In "Like You'll Never See Me Again," she achieved the sense of unfettered release and assurance her patter so clumsily bungled.
Keys remains a singer and songwriter of significant skill. But she needs to rebalance her live presentation to suit her true talents.
In a nutshell, she needs to let out more of her inner Laura Nyro - and less of her aspiring Beyoncé.