Last Thursday, The Four: Battle for Stardom premiered on Fox, and the new TV talent show had its pluses — namely an emphasis on hip-hop (thus setting it apart from other singing competitions and better reflecting the current Top 40 marketplace) and its tough-talking, sometimes downright brutal judging panel (a refreshing contrast from The Voice coaches’ enabling, everyone-gets-a-gold-star attitude, and a more realistic representation of the actual cutthroat music biz). However, a confusing format and too many underwhelming performances — not to mention ratings lower than Fox’s old marquee program American Idol garnered even in its waning final seasons — had me doubting if The Four is really the “new disruptive platform to find future stars” that lead judge Diddy claims it is. So, did Week 2 live up to the hype?
In a word, no.
Actually, Thursday’s episode did get off to a more promising start with an improved opening group number, thanks to the addition of dreadlocked baby-superstar Zhavia and soul powerhouse Saeed Renaud; this was already a stronger “Four” than last week’s dead-weight-laden, incongruent group. While my ass didn’t totally follow when Zhavia, Saeed, and incumbent contestants Ash Minor and Lex Lu belted En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind,” they were impressive enough to help me keep an open mind and hope that this week’s challengers would raise the bar, or at least be at their level.
But then came a slew of interchangeable, old-fashioned also-rans who seemed to have time-traveled straight off the set of American Idol Season 2, and somehow one of them even managed to unseat the original Four’s star player (spoiler alert) Lex. And the show’s other best performer, Zhavia, never got a chance to solo, because all of the new contestants were understandably too skerred to battle her. At this rate, frontrunner Zhavia may never sing another note this season, and really, she’s the main reason to watch The Four. Imagine an Idol Season 8 with Adam Lambert sitting out every week and you can get an idea of how frustrating this was. Not even an appearance by a member of real R&B royalty — the granddaughter of Dionne Warwick and cousin of Whitney Houston — could save this episode.
Anyway, these were the challenges and showdowns of the night…
This professional backup singer for Nicki Minaj, Eric Benét, Ne-Yo, and French Montana, fresh out of an aborted Sony/Epic solo deal, looked all sassy and tough in her backstory footage that showed her walking a pitbull through gritty city streets wearing an army coat, doorknocker earring, and a sneer. I was excited for her performance of “I’m Going Down,” but once she hit the stage, she didn’t seem so funky or fresh. This performance was fairly conservative and felt like a two-chair Voice audition; she didn’t have any of Rose Royce’s or Mary J. Blige’s rawness and fire. (Just go on YouTube watch Voice Season 13 Janice Freeman’s rendition for a refresher on how it’s done.) However, the judges oohed and aahed and even gave Candice a standing ovation, which shocked me; I was especially surprised that Republic Records president Charlie Walk was so enthusiastic, since he usually hates everything. “Your eyes don’t lie. I felt like you were singing to me. Stars are born, not made, and we’re feeling like you’re a star,” declared Charlie. “My heart’s exploding with joy right now. I haven’t been that affected from a performance yet on this show,” gushed Meghan Trainor, who loves everything. Meh. I was not so moved.
The judges elected to send Candice to the challenging stage, and Candice chose to battle … Ash.
Ash Minor vs. Candice Boyd
Ash, a former X Factor Australia contestant, wasn’t challenged on last week’s episode — he just kicked back in his illuminated chair all night while the judges repeatedly babbled about his supposed greatness. So this was his chance to shine and finally show what all the fuss was about. While his performance of “Adorn” didn’t have Miguel’s smoky sex appeal (despite the newly engaged Meghan’s moony-eyed reaction to his performance), he definitely showcased a more distinctive vocal style than Candice — a stratospheric falsetto, tastefully chosen runs and adlibs, and a pleasingly husky rasp. I also admired his restraint; I appreciate a talent show contestant who doesn’t feel the pressure to sing everything at 11.
Candice’s “Dangerous Woman,” in contrast, was generic. Her vocals weren’t as brash and booming as Ariana Grande’s, so the whole performance felt anticlimactic. Where was the sense of danger? This was a safe woman.
A seemingly smitten Meghan said Ash’s “Adorn” was her favorite performance of the season so far, and DJ Khaled was sure that Ash had done enough to secure his seat in this weird game of musical chairs. But it was time for the studio audience, not the judges, to decide, and in the closest vote of the season so far, 55 percent to 45 percent, they went with the safer bet and picked … Candice.
Ah, Ash, we hardly knew ye. I guess it’s a good thing that producers showed so little of him, so viewers didn’t get too emotionally invested. As for Candice, I don’t think she’s exciting or original — she really does seem like a background singer to me — so I don’t think we’ll get much chance to know her either.
A former child star and protégé of *NSYNC/Britney Spears manager Johnny Wright, this 27-year-old, Branson-ready cheesemonger showed up in in a shiny ruby-slipper-red tuxedo jacket and a George Hamilton tan and gave his best dinner-theater performance of Maroon 5’s “Sugar.” His vocal was decent — the helium-high Adam Levine isn’t easy to emulate — but there was nothing edgy or “disruptive” about Stevie. DJ Khaled, Diddy, and Charlie all looked unimpressed, even annoyed. “I have to say, I think you’re sweet, but I think an artist is a brand, and a brand is a promise. And I don’t know what your promise is,” grunted Charlie. Stevie admitted he was nervous, to which DJ Khaled retorted, “Listen, you can’t wear a suit like that and be nervous!” You know, Khaled had a point.
All four judges voted no — a first for this season — but Stevie had a good attitude and took the criticism in stride, unlike last week’s sobbing reject, Valentina. But he might have shed a couple of tears if he’d heard Charlie’s cruelest barb after he and his scarlet blazer left the stage: “Let’s get back to the competition. He wouldn’t play at my daughter’s wedding.” Ouch.
Cheyenne “walked onstage like a boss,” according to Charlie, and her grandmother Dionne Warwick was there in there in the audience to cheer her on, much to Diddy’s fawning delight. “My grandmother has said she is passing the baton down to me. She wants this for me as much as I want it,” said Cheyenne. Them’s fighting words; this girl had a lot to live up to. And I don’t think she did. Her trying-too-hard rock-ballad version of Little Mix’s “Wings” was good, but not Warwick-good. And definitely not Whitney-good. The performance felt dated and Laura Branigan-esque, and her two go-to stage movement — lunging and punching the air — got old real fast.
Diddy had mixed feelings about Cheyenne’s effort, but being under Dionne’s watchful eye probably forced him to be kinder than he would have been otherwise. “I am sitting here with the pressure of your grandmother being behind me over to my left shoulder,” he chuckled. “I had to ask myself, ‘What would she want me to do?’ And number one, I know she would want me to tell you the truth. Once you got to the ‘Can’t nobody bring us down’ part, I felt like that was your favorite part. And as a performer, you have to make everything you say be your favorite part.”
The judges put Cheyenne through, and she bizarrely challenged … Lex. “Why did she do that to herself?!?” howled Saeed. My thoughts exactly. I assumed that Cheyenne would be toast.
Lex Lu vs. Cheyenne Elliot
Lex was the only one of the Four who successfully defended her seat on the premiere episode, but now she would have to battle a contestant outside of her genre. (She was up against another rapper last week.) Her rendition of Migos’s “Bad and Boujee” started off strong — she has one of those unique, crisp, boisterous voices that anyone could easily pick out of a lineup, blindfolded — but then she committed the cardinal talent show sin and messed up her words! To her credit, she made the most of the awkward situation and fearlessly freestyled much of her performance, never missing a beat or losing her confidence, and by the end she still had the audience unison-chanting her name.
The judges were surprisingly forgiving, with Meghan and Diddy sympathetically noting that they’ve been in similar positions and DJ Khaled assuring her, “It don’t matter, you swagged it out!” But the damage was done.
Cheyenne made it through Sam Smith’s “Too Good at Goodbyes” without a single lyrical error, and this second performance was more focused and superior vocally. But the end result was still bland cabaret. So Cheyenne was more professional, but Lex more exciting and relevant. Which would the studio audience choose?
Unfortunately, the audience wasn’t so lenient, and Lex was eliminated. Damn. She was the one contestant, aside from Zhavia, who had a real shot at being The Four’s breakout star. Even Zhavia seemed bummed, saying, “This show is about being an artist. And you know, [Cheyenne] can sing crazy, but I feel like Lex is a true artist. I feel like she has her own thing going on, and that’s something special.”
(Side note: This was the second time this season that the judges asked the attitudinal Zhavia for her — harsh — opinion. Are they trying to turn her into the show’s villainess? I actually want her to win, so I hope not. In general, I’m less than thrilled with the way this show’s contestants are encouraged to trash-talk one another. It feels icky and mean-spirited.)
This Brooklyn R&B singer did the Labrinth weeper “Jealous” for her mom, who recently passed away. She was a regal presence and looked amazing, like a Thunderdome warrior hip-hop princess, and her performance was lovely and emotional. When she broke down at the end, I got déjà vu to Aliyah Moulden’s Voice Season 12 performance (dedicated to Aliyah’s deceased dad), and that wasn’t a bad thing. The judges and contestants all looked moved, and Saeed even looked a little intimidated.
“That was beautiful. I got chills. I believed every second. If I cry, I can’t sing that day, the entire day, but you pulled through. I felt like your mom was here and that you were singing to her,” said Meghan. Diddy agreed that Cocoa had potential. But cold-hearted killjoy Charlie countered with: “I was getting deeply emotional. I actually had thyroid cancer a few years ago, so I was feeling you. And then I reminded myself what this show is. And I was looking up, while you were singing, to the Four. I just feel like I like you a lot, but I don’t think you’re better than the Four.”
Cocoa was definitely better than Candice and Cheyenne, but their places were locked for the night and she couldn’t challenge them. Was she better than Saeed or Zhavia? We didn’t get to find out, because Charlie cast the dissenting vote (the judges’ decision has to be unanimous on this show). The audience jeered, and Diddy feigned outrage and stared daggers at Charlie, as Cocoa exited the stage.
This baby-faced 18-year-old’s cover of Halsey’s “Bad at Love” showcased oodles of personality and confidence (she pep-talked herself backstage with the positive affirmation “I’m a bad bitch, I’m a bad bitch, I’m a bad bitch,” over and over), but aside from that, she didn’t seem quite ready for prime time; she had almost no breath control on the fast-paced, wordy verses. Her performance improved once she hit the big, belting chorus, but was it enough? The stony expressions on the judges’ faces said no.
“You can sing, but a lot of people can sing. That’s a serious Four. And I wouldn’t want you to step in the realm of a Saeed,” said Khaled. Diddy thought Kayla had “je ne sais quoi” and wanted to give her a chance, but the other three judges, even softy Meghan, voted no. Apparently Kayla is bad at both love and singing competitions. I doubt this show is going to get a second season, but if it does, she should try out again. I agree with Diddy that she had a certain spark, but this just wasn’t her time.
I recall this 22-year-old nice young man from The Voice Season 11, so I was glad to see him get another chance. His rendition of John Legend’s “Love Me Now” was churchy and over-the-top, complete with a dramatic and probably calculated knee-drop at the end, but with a surname like Warrior, I guess he wasn’t going to be timid or restrained. And at least he entertained and really went for it, unlike some more wishy-washy singers tonight.
The judges appreciated Jason’s lack of subtlety, with DJ Khaled saying, “When you got on your knees, I felt the pain, the passion, the love, the emotions, and that’s what it’s about ’cause music gotta make you feel a certain way. And I’m really a big fan of John Legend. I’m sure if he heard you sing that, he’d be proud.” Charlie said, “I just wanted to say what you did tonight, Jason, this is the show that I signed up for.” And Diddy added: “Whenever I go and I buy a ticket for a show, I wanna see an artist take me to a place that almost makes me feel uncomfortable, because the vulnerability feels like something maybe I shouldn’t be watching because it’s really, really so real.”
Of course the judges elected to keep Jason. Jason then wisely avoided a battle with the threatening Zhavia and picked … Saeed.
Saeed Renaud vs. Jason Warrior
Ugh. Saeed for some reason chose to sing Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a song that has been performed on Idol probably 700 times. Since he already had an old-fashioned vibe to begin with, this cliché choice did him no favors and didn’t make him seem relevant at all. (His passionate cover of John Newman’s “Love Me Again” last week, the song that advanced him to the Four in the first place, was a better example of him sounding current and cool.) This wasn’t even American Idol Season 2. This was some Season 1 stuff, right here.
Jason then did a rock ‘n’ soul remake of “Radioactive” (another Janice Freeman flashback!) and was back on his knees, chewing the scenery like he hadn’t eaten for days. It was all a bit much, and I think his melodramatic shtick could wear thin fast and unseat him next week if he is challenged by a more nuanced contestant, but there was not question who won this round.
“Jason, when you walked out before you sang a note tonight, I felt your vibe, I felt your connectivity. I said that Diddy before. We all saw what happened in the room tonight, the difference of good and great. And I think you’re special,” said Charlie, and the voting audience concurred.
So by the end of the evening, we were definitely left with a weaker overall Four, with Ash and Lex out of the running. (I don’t think we have to consult Cheyenne’s grandmother’s psychic friends to know Cheyenne’s time on this show will be short.) However, the untouchable Zhavia is still in play (hopefully she will get to perform next week), and Jason has potential, so maybe there’s still hope. Either way, it’ll all be over soon; there are only four more weeks of The Four. In the immortal words of Dionne Warwick, let’s say a little prayer for the show.