While Fox’s new singing competition The Four has its faults, one aspect of the series that I’ve found refreshing is its cutthroat down ‘n’ dirtiness. On The Voice, for instance, the coaches (note they are not called “judges”) are enablers who dole out gold stars and participation trophies to all contestants (even the ones that don’t turn any chairs), while the contestants regularly engage in group hugs, backstage prayer circles, and kumbaya sing-alongs with their teammates. On The Four, however, it’s an entirely different game. Judges like Diddy and Republic Records president Charlie Walk are vicious enough to make Simon Cowell blanch, and the contestants frequently trash-talk each other. Sometimes the show gets icky and mean-spirited, but let’s face it: The Four is a better representation of the actual ruthless music business.
But Thursday, on the series’ third episode, things got a little too icky when smart-talking singer-songwriter Jefferson Clay challenged incumbent Four member Jason Warrior (ironically, a former hopeful on The Voice Season 11). When Jefferson conceded that Jason had a fantastic vocal instrument but implied that Jason wasn’t a “true artist,” the aptly named Mr. Warrior, a man known for melodrama, got all up in Jefferson’s grill. And things got awkward, fast. Show host Fergie even looked like she was about to break it up at one point.
“My friend, let me show you what an artist is. Let me help you understand something. An artist is someone who was born with a gift, not that learned how to play the gift!” Jason shouted, invading Jefferson’s personal space as he made a condescending jab at Jefferson’s acoustic guitar. “An artist is someone who grinds so hard. You wouldn’t understand that, because where I’m from, we work hard! We grind! So I am an artist. Don’t you deny that!”
Jefferson backed down and claimed he “never once denied” Jason’s artistry, and peacemaking judge DJ Khaled then insisted the two men hug it out while Fergie stood on the sidelines, wide-eyed and spooked. Jason eventually won this showdown, not so much because of his over-the-top speech (although that may have helped, since the studio audience, which cast the deciding vote in this round, seemed highly entertained by his antics), but because his performance of Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” was undeniably better than Jefferson’s goofy, gimmicky coffeehouse cover of R. Kelly’s “Ignition.” Even Jefferson admitted that Jason had given “an incredible, emotional performance” and deserved to prevail. But Jefferson also seemed rattled by their heated exchange.
“This whole thing has just kind of shaken me up,” Jefferson confessed later backstage. “Just from [Jason’s] monologue, he made a lot of assumptions about me that is totally understandable, maybe because of the kind of confidence and airiness that I brought out. But that’s what I feel like I got to do. It’s a competition.”
And that’s the problem. This is what Jefferson “had to do.” It’s obvious that the contestants are being encouraged to talk smack about each other — this season’s chosen one, Zhavia, is in fact often called upon to offer her (negative) opinions about other singers — and Jason just took things to a silly new level. It all felt very fake, almost WWE-like, and it rendered both contestants unlikable. If this show depended on viewers’ votes, Jason (and, come to think of it, Zhavia) would be eliminated almost instantly. Yes, The Four may somewhat accurately represent the real-world music business — and in the real-world music business, confidence-bordering-on-arrogance plays well (think Kanye West, Beyoncé, Gaga) — but on TV singing shows, a bit of humility and likability go a long way. No one wants to see this stupid, staged fight club.
That being said, while Jefferson and Jason brought bad juju to the proceedings, Thursday’s episode ended on a feel-good note, with the addition of an actually interesting, non-fodder contestant. Let’s recap.
This 24-year-old rapper made a big mistake by doing his own interpretation of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” (titled “Pools”), an attitudinal song by a multiple Grammy nominee who’s a total beast on the mic. Rell was not a beast. He was confident and smooth, and he tried to make the track is own, but he lacked personality, swag, and edge.
However, Meghan Trainor, the one Four panelist who is so toothless and nice that she should have joined The Voice instead, was impressed by Rell’s “amazing breath control” and thought he had “many special moments” — although she did wisely note that he needed to “loosen up a little bit.” Diddy thought he heard too much of Rell’s main influence, Jay-Z, but thought Rell started to come into his own about 35 seconds into the song. I was surprised that Rell received the four yes votes he needed to move on to the challenging stage, but not surprised that he chose to challenge Cheyenne Elliott, the current Four’s clearly obvious weakest link.
Rell Jerv vs. Cheyenne Elliott
As this challenge got underway, Fergie got deliciously shady and grilled Cheyenne about the many Twitter haters out there who’d (rightfully) argued that Cheyenne had secured her spot only because of her famous grandmother Dionne Warwick. Cheyenne insisted that she was her own artist and that nepotism had nothing to do with it, but Fergie’s even posing the question set her up to fail. And Warwick wasn’t in the audience tonight to influence the vote and turn Diddy into a squealing fanboy, so Cheyenne was toast.
Cheyenne sang Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and pretty much wrecked it, proving once again that she inherited only a fraction of her grandma’s (or her cousin Whitney Houston’s) talent. Cheyenne is no Matthew Schuler, so her “Wrecking Ball” lacked passion. And there was a such a dated, Melissa Manchester-ish (Melissa Mancunian?) vibe to her performance.
Rell was more impressive his second time out, doing his original song “I Own It,” which allowed him to own the stage and show more of what he can really do. This was definitely a more entertaining and exciting performance, fresher and cooler. And, heeding Meghan’s advice, he loosened up considerably. Charlie said he appreciated Rell’s “lyrical point of view.” Cheyenne looked very nervous.
The audience voted to keep Rell, of course. This was an apple-and-oranges sort of battle, but in the end, Rell had the juice.
This emo-haired ex-boy-band member looked the part of a teen heartthrob and had the seat-filler girlies in the audience swooning, but he too made a big song-choice mistake, going with “Stitches” by Shawn Mendes. That was way too on-the-nose. Sean sounded so much like Shawn, it was hard to tell what sort of artist he could be in his own right. (Opinionated Zhavia even snarked about this to Jason Warrior as she sat on her illuminated throne; maybe Fox should have made her a judge this year.)
“I wish you didn’t do a Shawn Mendes song, because it’s tough to see where you could fit in with the industry right now — because we already have a Shawn Mendes, and I want someone new,” lamented Meghan. Khaled said Shawn Sean didn’t have enough of a “vibe.” Charlie, who has actually worked with Shawn Mendes, suggested that Sean focus on writing original material. In the end, Sean received only two yes votes (Charlie and Khaled turned him down). I understood this decision, but Sean had more star quality and potential than some fodder contestants (like Cheyenne) who’ve made it to the challenging stage this season, so this was a bit disappointing.
The above-mentioned shaggy singer-songwriter from Austin came out all likable and precocious and Jason Mraz-y, but within a couple minutes he was annoying the hell out of me with his muggy faces and class-clown attitude. I just wish he’d put just some of that personality into his merely competent cover of James Morrison’s “Better Man”; I wanted this to be, well, better. But there was still something interesting about him. “You came out here like it was home, and that was so impressive. I saw a great performance, and I had a really fun time,” said Meghan. Diddy liked how confident and “loosey-goosey” Jefferson was.
After he received four yeses, it seemed like Jefferson was leaning toward challenging Zhavia — maybe because she was sick and, by doctor’s order, on vocal rest, so he thought he could take her down in her weakened state. But Meghan warned him not to go up against the “darling of the show” (Jefferson’s words), so he picked … Jason. And we all know how that turned out.
Jefferson Clay vs. Jason Warrior
“Love on the Brain” was a brilliant choice for Jason, as the fiery, old-school R&B tune played right to his theatricality, gospel flair, and old-fashioned balladeer charms. It was an unsubtle performance, as usual, but it worked. This was Jason’s best effort of the season so far. DJ Khaled even ran up onstage to high-five him afterward.
Conversely, Jefferson’s R. Kelly remake was strummy and low-key, and the energy sagged in the room. This might have been a fun American Idol audition, but it was simply too chill to win a battle like this. Diddy chastised Jefferson, saying he was “playing around too much. … This is a very, very serious craft. Get focused, and go for it.”
And then, after a tense war of words between Jefferson and Jason, the Warrior triumphed. I am fine with this result, but it couldn’t hurt for him to dial it down once in a while. Hopefully he will heed Diddy’s advice: “You need to be able to have some finesse. Give us that growl when we need it, pull back when we least expect it, and take us home in a different way than you did the show before.”
Nicole, a conservative, thirtysomething pop/rock belter from Nashville, probably would have been better off going on The Voice. Her rendition of Four judge Meghan Trainor’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” showcased a strong voice with a good range — she is probably one of the best technical singers of this Four season — but she seemed all wrong for this youthful, hip-hop-leaning competition. She did her best, and her best was pretty damn good (she sang the song better than Meghan ever could, and Meghan admitted this), but Diddy was totally underwhelmed. (“I dunno,” he said with a shrug after she was finished.) But somehow, after Khaled insisted that she had “great energy” and a certain “glow,” Nicole squeaked through to the next round. And she audaciously challenged the ailing Zhavia.
Nicole Boggs vs. Zhavia
I suspect that producers didn’t want Zhavia, the show’s most dynamic performer and likely future champion, to sit out another episode after she went unchallenged last week, so this softball showdown was totally staged with a preordained outcome. Zhavia was actually terrible this week, froggily croaking her way through Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” while sounding like she was killing her vocal cords. She was audibly struggling.
Another contestant may have been able to take advantage of the situation and usurp Zhavia, but an also-ran contestant like Nicole was no match for Zhavia’s undeniable charisma. Nicole’s cover of Kesha’s “Praying” was solid and nearly pitch-perfect (the judges even gave her a standing ovation, and Charlie said he got “goosebumps”), but the poor woman never had a prayer.
Tim Johnson Jr.
At first, I didn’t like this kid. I just didn’t get it. Al Green’s sexy, throaty “Let’s Stay Together” could not have been a worse fit for sweet 18-year-old Tim’s feather-light, trebly, slightly nasal voice. His performance was very affected. And yet … there was something intriguing about him. He was different. Unique. Adorable. And despite his vocal shortcomings, he radiated a certain “glow” onstage that drew me in. By the song’s end, I started to feel like I was watching a budding star.
“You know when they say you can really feel music in your bones, in your body? Well, I see it all over you,” raved Meghan. “You’re the ultimate performer,” said Charlie. Khaled boldly compared Tim to Michael Jackson. Only doubting Diddy thought the Al Green tune was a bad move (“You should’ve never touched that song!”), but he enjoyed Tim’s performance. “You may deserve a challenge,” Diddy told Tim.
Tim did get his shot at a challenge, and thanks to stupid, arbitrary rules on this show that don’t allow contestants to challenge someone who’s already competed for a seat that night, by process of elimination Tim had to go up against Candice Boyd.
Tim Johnson Jr. vs. Candice Boyd
Belting Alessia Cara’s “Here,” Candice was in classic, straight-up diva mode. There was no doubt that she was the stronger technical singer of these two. But was she distinctive and interesting enough? Not really. We see performers like her on The Voice every season. She still seemed like a backup singer to me.
Tim, however, was a revelation doing Kodaline’s “All I Want,” a modern indie tune much better suited to his airy, idiosyncratic vocal style than “Let’s Stay Together.” He gave what Meghan called a “magical” performance and owned the night. “For some reason, I see Tim’s vision more,” mused Meghan.
And the audience agreed, voting to keep Tim. Candice bitterly complained that she’d been “robbed” because her vocals were stronger, and she wasn’t entirely wrong — but Tim exhibited the undeniable star power that this show is looking for.
So now the Four comprises Tim Johnson Jr., Rell Jerv, and two holdovers who successfully defended their seats this week, Jason Warrior and Zhavia. Of this foursome, I think Rell is the weakest contestant and will probably lose his seat next week, but overall, this is a better Four than last week’s fodder-laden mix. I still have serious doubts about this show, and I might be prone to a bit of “trash-talking” myself if I continue to recap it. But maybe, just maybe, whoever ultimately wins this “Battle for Stardom” will have a chance in the real world.