As the first episode of season 9’s Knockouts began, The Voice lost no time making one thing abundantly clear: Music already has a reigning champion, and she is not a reality-show contestant. She is Rihanna.
Besides gracing us with advisor RiRi’s distinctive appearance, the Knockouts also delivered some of the overall greatest performances of the season and sent more than one former frontrunner packing. (A quick run-down of how this works: Each coach chooses two team members to square off — but unlike the Battles, each singer gets to perform solo and to choose his or her own song. Their coach then chooses who will continue. Each coach gets just one steal.)
Tonight, it all starts with a rumble between Team Adam’s ethereal twins Andi & Alex and one of his steals from the Battles, rocker Blaine Mitchell. It’s an odd combination — and at first glance, it might look like a quick ploy to dump Blaine, whom Adam says he stole “on a whim.” Andi & Alex choose Keith Urban’s “Stupid Boy,” hoping that a country performance will show off their diverse sound. It’s the first time we really get to hear each woman sing solo, and it doesn’t have the same effect we’re used to from past performances. One of them is flat during the Knockout, and “Stupid Boy” doesn’t lend itself to that same eerie magic their earlier selections had.
Blaine picks “Hold Back the River” by James Bay. It’s a strong choice, and Bay is a good example of the kind of current solo rocker Blaine should be emulating. Rihanna calls his singing “ballsy” in rehearsal, and during the Knockout, Blaine shows off a more distinctive tone than we’ve heard in the past. He nails the song’s passion, and both Pharrell and Blake tell him he had a real moment up there. Adam picks Blaine to move on, which means Andi & Alex are toast. I can’t believe they’re out so soon.
Next up are Team Gwen’s Braiden Sunshine and Ellie Lawrence. Like the previous Knockout, I would have called this an easy win for one performer (Ellie) over the other. But again, I was surprised. Braiden takes on Michael Bublé’s version of “Feelin’ Good.” If you’re not a strong enough singer, this song will eat you alive. Yet, during rehearsal, Rihanna tells Braiden, “The voice that comes out of you is scary” — and she means it. On stage, Braiden exhibits total control of every dip and dive the track serves up. It’s his strongest vocal performance yet.
Ellie, on the other hand, falters this week. She chooses Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer,” and while I initially applauded her forward-thinking choice, it soon becomes apparent that she and the song are not a good match. Ellie shines on softer, emotional numbers, but her gravelly tone doesn’t bring the same depth on slick, up-tempo tracks. (If she’d really gone for it and completely rearranged “Cool for the Summer” to fit her folksy style, it might have been a winner.) It’s an easy call for Gwen: Braiden stays.
WANT MORE? Keep up with all the latest from last night’s television by subscribing to our newsletter. Head here for more details.
Team Blake’s first Knockout — between his two experienced classic country singers, Barrett Baber and Blind Joe — is more evenly matched than the first two go-arounds. Barrett goes with Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather.” As always, Barrett sounds like a seasoned vet. He knows exactly where to build the song up and where to lay it back down again. His Battle performance of “Walking in Memphis” was more affecting, but he still sold it in the Knockout.
Whether Blind Joe moved forward tonight or not, we know he has at least one fan: Rihanna went crazy over his performance of “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson version). Blake shares her enthusiasm, but cautions Joe to lose the ad libs and shout-outs because he needs to hear a pure performance. Joe freely admits that he’s a honky-tonk singer, and those ad libs were what endeared him so much to the crowd during his Battle. Blake might have missed the mark: Joe has the most personality of anyone in the competition, but he showed nerves during his Knockout performance, and Blake chose to send Barrett through to the Lives instead.
NEXT: Blake’s last chance for a special singer
The second half of the episode begins with a Knockout between Team Pharrell’s crooner Amy Vachal and his 16-year-old throwback Madi Davis. Both singers have that “other” quality their coach prizes, and they both sing slower, more introspective numbers. Madi picks Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” This is a complex song with an infinite number of moments to pick from. Yet during her performance, Madi doesn’t make one misstep. She innately understands how to wind her way through a vocal to show off moments both big and intimate. It’s exciting to watch someone do something this unexpected on The Voice, and succeed.
Amy, too, is bringing something interesting this season, though her choice of Etta James’ version of “A Sunday Kind of Love” is much more obvious. In rehearsal, Rihanna advises Amy to embody the pining sexiness of the song. Amy’s Knockout performance is breezy, and her jazz inflections add unexpected twists to an old standard, but she can’t connect to that passion. Perhaps, if the band had gone full orchestra, it could have taken her song to a higher level, but Pharrell makes the right call and keeps Madi on his team. It’s no sweat for Amy, though, because even before Carson can inform the judges she’s available, both Adam and Blake are poised over their buzzers. Blake begs for her, but Amy chooses Adam as her new coach.
The fifth Knockout is between the two singers Blake saved during the Battles: Chance Peña and Ivonne Acero. Chance considers himself a folk singer, but he decides to sing “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. The original version of the song has a huge, angsty sound, but Chance delivers a less dramatic take. His inflections are still unique, and he’s certainly enjoyable to listen to, but “Demons” will always sound subdued unless the singer goes full throttle.
Ivonne chooses Katy Perry’s “Part of Me,” and it is the perfect song for her right now. More than anyone else, Ivonne has struggled with nerves this season, and it’s hindered her so far. That anxiety has showed up as perfectionism at the expense of any emotion or individuality. But now that Blake has demonstrated faith in her, Ivonne is like a new person. She nails Perry’s big notes and her not-gonna-back-down attitude. It’s the first time I’ve seen her potential to do well in this competition. All the judges respond to Ivonne’s growth, and Blake send her through to the next round.
The final Knockout of the night is between the two singers who have probably garnered the most acclaim thus far: Team Adam’s Jordan Smith and Viktor Király, both of whom have otherworldly ranges. I think it’s a mistake to pair these two off, because they could both be tremendous this season. Jordan picks Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” His whole performance is designed to all lead up to one moment, a glass-shattering high note that would even make Mariah Carey jealous. Blake remarks that it was one of the best live vocal performances he’s ever heard.
Viktor isn’t ready to let Jordan walk away with this one, however. He chooses “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys. Although Viktor and Jordan are very different, their Knockout performances share some commonalities. They both take on songs by big-voiced divas, and they both base their performances around a breathtaking high note. Viktor rearranges “If I Ain’t Got You” to suit his jazzier style. The arrangement is a great fit for his cozy, rich tone, and then that note comes in to blow us all away. It’s impossible to choose between these two, but Adam declares Jordan the winner of the Knockout. Viktor was never in any danger of going home this early, though. Gwen swoops in with the steal, earning herself quite a windfall.
- When they’re allowed to pick their own music, the contestants nearly always choose to go modern. This episode, just four of the 16 songs were released before 2005
- No surprise, there were two Team Adam performances this episode, and they opened and closed the show
- Blake has run out of bald celebrity references, and now he’s repeating himself. We heard him call Adam old standbys like Dr. Evil and a member of the Blue Man Group tonight (as well as Sinéad O’Connor)
- Amy Vachal may have made a serious error choosing Adam over Blake. Blake is clearly passionate about her and might have kept her around longer. She’d also have been a more unique presence on his team
- I know I’ve been a Rihanna cheerleader the past few recaps, but I must say I was really impressed by her advice. She gave each singer very specific technical notes that immensely helped their performances. Girl knows her stuff