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.
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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