Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the TV water…
Up until very recently, there was a dearth of televised singing shows not called The Voice, following Fox’s cancelation of both The X Factor and American Idol and the failure of The Next, Duets, Can You Duet?, Platinum Hit, The Sing-Off, Rising Star, Nashville Star, CMT’s Next Superstar, P. Diddy’s Starmaker, et al. But now, not only is ABC reviving Idol this March, but Fox is already back in the game with The Four: Battle for Stardom, featuring Diddy (or “Love,” or whatever) himself.
The new series, which premiered Thursday, does have some merits. Its panel is credible, featuring modern-day, market-tested hitmakers DJ Khaled and Meghan Trainor (although I would’ve replaced one of them with veteran diva Fergie, slumming it in a smarmy hosting role); Diddy/Love (Forbes’s top-earning musician of 2017); and an actual behind-the-scenes music-biz executive with a sufficiently Simon-like ‘tude, Charlie Walk, president of Republic Records. (Let’s just set aside my gripes about Republic’s handling, or mishandling, of past Voice contestants for another day.) And, most important, The Four’s focus is mainly on hip-hop-leaning artists — who are under-represented on almost every other TV talent competition, despite the fact that urban music is officially the most popular genre in the country — and the show has a partnership with iHeartMedia, which guarantees the winner support from pop radio.
“This show is gonna give you the reality of what it’s about. Attention, America! No karaoke singers. This is not that show. This is a battle show. This is not like the other shows, and I want this show to be a true reflection of this industry,” Diddy claimed at the start of the night. Added Charlie: “This is real life, guys. Real life!”
Well, then, I’m going to keep it real and also mention The Four’s drawbacks, aside from Meghan’s obvious overall uselessness as a judge. (She’s clearly filling the nicey-nice Paula Abdul slot.) The season — conveniently only six episodes long, so it won’t eat into our valuable Voice– and Idol-watching time later this winter/spring — kicked off with four pre-vetted performers (rapper Lex Lu, R&B/pop crooner Blair Perkins, former X Factor Australia contestant Ash Minor, and Latin singer Elanese Lansen) who supposedly are the best of the best, the crème de la crème, the ones that every other contestant must beat. And yet, all we got to see of them, at first, was a hokey group number of Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling” that seemed like it was choreographed by Nigel Lythgoe for American Idol Season 2 (or for that Voice-themed Vegas show, Neon Dreams). Throughout the two-hour premiere, we kept hearing from the judges and an aggressively enthusiastic Fergie how fantastic and bar-setting these four singers were, but until they got “challenged” by an up-and-coming contestant, we didn’t get to see them solo or hear their backstories. By the night’s end, Ash still hadn’t been challenged, so he sailed through, just sitting pretty in his illuminated space-chair without warbling a note. I guess we will have to wait till Week 2 to see what all his fuss is about (or watch his old X Factor performances on YouTube). Hypothetically, I suppose he could make it all the way to the finale without ever having to perform, if he was never challenged.
During the above-mentioned group performance, only Lex stood out, looking like a queen bee in a yellow fun-fur coat with hair practically dyed to match, sassily freestyling in her girlish, cartoonish style. She was something different, something you don’t see on all these other shows, and Lex — along with (spoiler alert) a future member of the Four, Zhavia — gave me hope for the show. I have a feeling both ladies won’t be abdicating their spherical neon thrones any time soon.
These were the performances and challenges of the night…
Tyler Griffin (“also known as Ty Alexander, y’all”)
This 24-year-old had a cool look and likable vibe, but his asking the crowd for a reaction, before he’d even started singing, bordered on begging. Yeah, that was annoying. His take on Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty” was cheesy, and his voice (both as a singer and rapper) were average. The easily impressed Meghan loved his Justin Guarini-like dance moves, but the other judges were more skeptical. “It’s gotta be great,” warned an underwhelmed DJ Khaled. “Everyone’s going crazy about that song; well, if you’ve been to a wedding and [the band plays] that song, you get the same reaction, OK?” Charlie pointed out, ruthlessly but correctly. The judges then voted — it had to be a unanimous decision to send Tyler through to the challenging stage — and Charlie’s dissenting no crushed Ty’s chances.
The first real contender of the night was this scrappy 16-year-old R&B singer with the waist-length dreadlocks and multiple facial piercings, who gave me Cher Lloyd/Charli XCX vibes in the best possible way and actually seemed like someone I’d want to see in concert. Her cover of Khalid’s “Location” felt current and cool, her voice crisp and vibrant and distinctive and her stage style full of swagger. Such confidence for such a young kid! The reigning Four didn’t seem so confident, as the camera cut away to shots of them looking worried in their seats while Charlie practically jumped out of his. (“I think you should be absolutely terrified right now,” Meghan told them.) All of the judges gave Zhavia a standing ovation eventually. “This is why I’m here. …You look, sound like, move like a young icon,” said DJ Khaled. “I feel like I was listening to the future here tonight,” said Charlie. The judges voted in Zhavia’s favor, and Zhavia chose to challenge … Elanese.
Elanese Lansen vs. Zhavia
I’m not really sure how Elanese became one of this show’s chosen ones. She is a capable singer, but her version of Luis Fonsi and Demi Lovato’s “Échame la Culpa” was so generic and lightweight it would probably end up in a montage on The Voice. When Zhavia got to sing again, doing French Montana’s “Unforgettable,” it was no contest. Zhavia showed off her impressive lower range on this song, proving she has vocal chops as well as charisma. She was unforgettable, and Elanese was, well, forgettable. At this point, it was time for the studio audience to vote, and they unsurprisingly saved Zhavia. Elanese had barely gotten time to warm up that chair before she’d gone from Four to zero.
Not to be confused with Anthony Michael Hall (unfortunately), this beardy, beachy singer-songwriter actually had a failed record deal on Republic, so I’m not sure why he thought going on a show starring Charlie Walk was such a great idea. He cleaned up nice in a Gary Cherone sort of way when he got onstage (although Diddy likened him more to “white Jesus”) and did a passably bluesy but dated-sounding reworking of Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still.” He was like American Idol’s Casey Abrams, except less charming, less fun, and slightly hairier. His voice was decent, but I could already tell it was gonna be a no, dawg.
Meghan loved it, of course. Diddy said he didn’t “see the artist” in Anthony. Anthony pleaded, “If you guys give me a shot, what I have lined up next is really exciting!” — seemingly not realizing that he’d already been given a shot (twice, if you count his old Republic deal) and, you know, he probably should have done the exciting stuff right off the bat tonight. Charlie and Diddy voted against the poor dude, Charlie bidding him farewell with: “Only a few artists can play arenas. I’m not sure you can, but I will definitely buy a ticket to see you in a club.” Oh, the shade, the shade!
This 21-year-old rapper/producer/DJ grabbed my attention with his Stephen Sprouse-like graffiti sweatshirt (plastered with his own name — this guy knows about branding!) and general ’90s-throwback vibes. His rapid-fire interpolation of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove” was manic and a bit of a mess, but hey, he certainly didn’t lack energy. His out-there, colorful style reminded me a bit of Outkast, Dizzee Rascal, or Danny Brown. “Your stage presence is something I’ve never seen before. I love your originality, and I love your sweatshirt,” said Meghan. Charlie found Illakriss “interesting,” but didn’t think he was right for the show. Diddy, however, rallied hard for Illakriss. “We just may have different taste as far as hip-hop,” he told Charlie. “There’s a lot of old people sitting in offices in the music industry not understanding what it is. Originality is key. You didn’t come out here sounding like Drake, sounding like Kendrick. You came out here and you did you!” Eventually he persuaded Charlie to change his vote, and Illakriss got the opportunity to challenge … Lex.
Lex Lu vs. Illakriss
How convenient it was that all night long, the contestants challenged performers in their own genres. And how unfortunate that was for Illakriss, who may have had a chance if he’d gone up against Ash or Blair. We’ll never know. Instead, Lex the “femcee” and former professional hip-hop dancer spit pure fire on DJ Khaled’s “Wild Thoughts,” and the crowd went wild indeed. She had a lot of hunger, ferocity, and confidence and just seemed like a star. Seriously, the woman exhibited more charisma just smirking in her chair all night than most of the other contestants did while singing. Poor Illakriss.
However, Illakriss’s warp-speed “Special Delivery” was not without its charms. It was actually better than his first performance. He was kooky and fearless, definitely original, and his vivaciousness was undeniable. Diddy was furious with both Lex and Illakriss, for some reason, claiming they’d failed to represent for hip-hop, but the audience didn’t seem too mad at Lex and voted for her to keep her seat. Lex promised to “go harder” next week, but I don’t know why Diddy had his Sean John undies in such a bunch; I thought she was spectacular.
Sadly, this was not the RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10 contestant, but at least that meant she didn’t wear a jeweled mask over her mouth while singing. (“I’d like to leave it on, please…”) However, she may have been better off doing just that. I didn’t think this 19-year-old ice-blonde chanteuse’s cover of Lorde’s “Green Light” was terrible at all — not very imaginative or passionate, sure, but she had pipes, poise, and polish. However, her “Green Light” had Diddy seeing red. I think he just wanted to create a viral TV moment by being so hard on her, because he wasn’t nearly as nasty to Tyler or Anthony, who in my opinion had given weaker performances.
Charlie, who has worked with the actual Lorde, liked Valentina, calling her a “real artist,” but the usually sweet Meghan thought Valentina’s vocals seemed affected (that’s rich, coming from a woman who sings half her catalog in a fake frog voice). Diddy said he “didn’t like it one bit” and hollered, “That was a bad performance!” DJ Khaled then cruelly invited Zhavia to pile on, for some reason; Zhavia, sitting smugly in her secured seat, said, “I feel like if you’re going to sing someone’s song, you have to sing it better than them and put your own style into it, and I didn’t really see that.” Zhavia wasn’t wrong, but I felt bad for Valentina when she collapsed backstage in heaving sobs after the judges voted her off.
Saeed is the type of contestant we often see on The Voice — a bit older, a bit everyman-looking, and a showbiz also-ran still looking to break out. (He won a Grammy for his songwriting for Lalah Hathaway but still isn’t a household name or exactly rolling in dough.) As for his old-fashioned performance of Whitney Houston’s “Run to You,” he had the best vocal of the night, pure Velvet Teddy Bear balladeer realness, and we all know on The Voice he’d turn four chairs. He’d draw tears on America’s Got Talent. And he did draw tears from Meghan, of course. But isn’t The Four supposed to be about finding a current, marketable, radio-ready artist? Saeed was not that.
Surprisingly, though, all of the judges loved Saeed. “If somebody says no on this panel, I’m outta here,” proclaimed DJ Khaled. “There’s a place for you in the music business, for sure,” said Charlie, much to my surprise. “I just want to say thank you for setting a bar. I want to see a challenge,” said Diddy. Saeed ultimately challenged Blair.
Blair Perkins vs. Saeed Renaud
Blair did an emotional take on Sam Smith’s already-emotional “Stay With Me” that ended with him falling to the floor and probably dirtying the knees of his impeccable white jeans. Was it worth the dry-cleaning bill? I don’t know. Blair had perfect pitch (you don’t get to open for/work with Stevie Wonder, which he has done in the past, if you can’t sing), but his voice and stage presence were unremarkable, generic. And the knee-drop was kind of corny; it felt so pre-planned, not a heat-of-the-moment move.
Saeed then shocked me with John Newman’s “Love Me Again,” suddenly time-traveling from 1987 all the way to 2018 and giving a sexy, dynamite performance that proved he can be relevant and that maybe Charlie was right about him along. Saeed’s performance was sweatier and funkier and just more real. He put his entire back into it. Saeed for the win!
So, until next week, the Four now comprises Lex Lu, Zhavia, Saeed Renaud, and, by default, Ash Minor. This premiere had its kinks, which I expect won’t be ironed out in the next five weeks, but until The Voice Season 14 starts and American Idol returns, it has enough talent and enough of its own twist to scratch my singing-show itch, so I’ll keep watching. See you next Thursday for more of The Four.