Yes, it was corny (especially when Shawn's fellow judge Ben Folds rap-battled with host Nick Lachey, somewhat adorably). And nothing the eight remaining teams performed was as awesome as Urban Method's cover of Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" from last week. (I am now rallying for a New Jack Swing night on "The Sing-Off." Come on, Shawn, make it happen!) But there were a few moments when the crews got a little crunk, and it was fun...in a rap-that-won't-scare-your-grandma sort of way.
Dartmouth Aires - The Aires are definitely one of the most fun, party-hardy teams on this show, and they applied their patented anthemic, rowdy approach to Flo Rida's "Club Can't Handle Me." The overall effect was a tad chaotic, but in a way that for me evoked the vibe of the cast of "Glee" going to a crazy Saturday night club. "I wrote down 'swagger,'" said judge Sara Bareilles as she consulted her notes. "I love the energy you project onstage!" However, Sara said she felt the performance seemed too out of control and rushed. Said Ben, "That was fun. It turned into a polka for a while--this is the first prime-time show to have polka hip-hop! But you got it together by the end." And Shawn said, "You kept the integrity of the record, but made it Dartmouth Aires. You guys are fun. I would hang with y'all at a party!" I would too. I'm just waiting for the Aires to send me my invitation.
Afro-Blue - This jazzy crew claimed they were doing the Fugees' version of "Killing Me Softly," but they weren't fooling anyone: This was the Roberta Flack original, straight-up. They did a lovely job with it, but I felt their song choice was a cop-out, an easy out, and they should have been called out for that by judges. Their performance was not very hip-hop at all, and they seemed a little skerred. Since Roberta is an alum of their university, it was a nice homage, but this was typical Afro-Blue, no risk-taking involved at all. But the judges all loved it. "That was gorgeous, it really was. And that's not a word I really ever use," gushed Ben in a most non-hip-hop manner. "Your fellow alum Roberta Flack would be very, very proud. I could hear that on a record. I could hear that in a live concert. It was that impressive. Dope!" raved Shawn. And Sara exclaimed, "I love this show! I love this show so much! You are showcasing how intricate and important a cappella music is." I agree, but this was NOT hip-hop, sorry.
The Collective - The Collective are out-and-proud geeks, un-crunk even by "Sing-Off" standards. "This is not what Collective is about! I am in bed by 10 o'clock every night!" one of them protested. So taking on Pitbull & Ne-Yo's "Give Me Everything" was a major challenge for these swag-free kids, trying to urbanize their G-rated, Nashville-bred sound. But you know what? The Collective were actually pretty convincing. They worked it out. Even the female team members seemed to be getting in touch with their inner video-girl hoochies. And the judges looked highly entertained, and definitely surprised. The judges criticized the performance for its fluctuations in tempo and groove, but still enjoyed the effort. "This show is about adapting to the challenge, and I know you were out of your comfort zone. This was really ambitious, and I applaud you for going for it," said Sara. "Wicked awesome! That was a lot of fun. But you have to overcome the science of being an a cappella group. You need a little bit more rhythm section," said Ben. And Shawn laughed, "I like the fact that you guys let your hair down and actually stayed out after 10 o'clock!"
Vocal Point - "We're a bunch of white guys and this is something we don't do," VP offered as their pre-performance disclaimer, seeming as intimidated as the Collective at first. Vocal Point opted not to go the swaggy route but instead milked their group member Ben's recent family tragedy (his father died mid-season) with Diddy's "I'll Be Missing You." Okay, maybe that was a little harsh. Obviously it is very sad that the man's father passed, and it's understandable that he wanted to pay some sort of tribute. But it still seemed a little manipulative--if not by Vocal Point themselves, then by NBC execs who wanted to create a "moment." (This performance was teased in somber NBC promos throughout the week.) And it was obvious that the judges would not have the heart to eliminate VP after seeing them leave their hearts on the stage like this, so this was a shrewdly strategic move if nothing else. "That was very honorable to dedicate that to your father, man. I know he's looking down at you and smiling. You're understanding the correlation between hip-hop and any kind of music that has soul," said Shawn, although Shawn pointed out that the group's shaky emotional state contributed to some pitch issues. "How brave you guys are to choose something that was emotional. This was such a wonderful illustration of how the emotion of music transcends the genre. Thank you for sharing that with all of us," said Sara, although she noticed some pitch problems as well. Said Ben, "You're gonna be the first group to make me cry on TV."
Urban Method - I was excited when this season's "rap-a-pella" crew, who killed it with "Poison" last week, were planning to perform another party-starter, Tupac's "California Love." And I was bummed when they changed their song to B.o.B.'s "Airplanes" at the last minute. But while an 11th-hour song switch felled North Shore last week, this decision worked out for Urban Method, as the Hayley Williams-originated chorus allowed the group's girls to shine. Leader Mike was in fine feisty, bulldog-snarling form, too, and the cricket sounds created by his backup singers were supercool. I know they were feeling the pressure to excel because they're the token hip-hop group in this competition, but they rose to the occasion. "This is pretty much what y'all do, and you do it so well. Mike, you're so focused right now, you look like you have X-ray vision!" said Shawn. Said Ben, "The tension at the beginning was really artful." Sara called Mike a "superstar" and raved about how the "bass and beatbox was so strong and so heavy and so thick," but said she thought the performance "didn't quite get to the breaking point." But I thought this was one of the coolest performances of the night.
Pentatonix - However, the award for THE coolest performance of the night, for the second week in a row, had to go to Pentatonix doing Kanye West's "Love Lockdown." Penatonix managed to do the impossible: make "The Sing-Off" seem cool. Or at least relatively cool. "You feel it in the room when somebody's been in the sweet spot. Everybody felt that. You delivered with that performance," said Sara. "That was primal! Kevin still looks pissed off," raved Ben. And Shawn came up with the most creative critique of the evening when he said, "You know when something sounds so good you make an ugly face?" Yes, this was so "ugly," it was beautiful.
Delilah - Here was yet another self-conscious group offering a disclaimer: "We should never rap." Probably true. So they went with a more sing-songy selection, Lil Wayne's hit "How To Love." They definitely made the song their own, turning the thuggish track into something more feminine, but overall, this was kind of bland and boring. Luckily for them, they left a good lasting impression as they started belting it out more towards the end. "That was amazing. You guys have a knack for doing a song that becomes so emotional, it goes to a level you didn't know it could go. It was an emotional rendition of a Lil Wayne song, and I'd a never thought I'd put those words together," said Shawn. "I think your frustration has paid off," Ben pointed out, referring to Delilah's previous showings in their bracket's bottom two. "Sometimes you gotta go through that stuff if you're gonna do something original." And Sara, their biggest fan, said, "You guys have such a strong female energy. You're not afraid to play with the big boys. It was coming from a really beautiful, authentic place, and that's what works the best for you. Don't forget that." True, but I think Delilah should remember to snazz and jazz it up a little more in future performances.
Yellowjackets - Lupe Fiasco's Modest Mouse-sampling "The Show Goes On" was a fun, upbeat anthem for these goofy but big-hearted guys. It featured a very fast rap, but they kept up the pace admirably (at least I thought so; Sara didn't quite agree). And their pre-performance interview, in which they claimed they'd spend their "Sing-Off" prize money on Kenyan orphans, certainly helped ingratiate them as much as Vocal Point. "You guys always bring a heart to your performances. The message is all there, it's all very powerful, you mean every note," said Ben. "You guys are all heart and I just love that about you, but this felt a little fast to me...it felt like you were rushing a little bit," said Sara. And Shawn said, "I liked the fact that you nailed such a different hip-hop song. I just wish that you'd locked in more of the element of surprise." But with their nice backstory, it was hard to imagine the judges would send the 'Jackets home. That would be the real surprise.
As it turned out, bracket 1's Collective and bracket 2's Yellowjackets were up for elimination, and for the first time this season, "The Sing-Off" had a proper sing-off, with the two teams going head-to-head and larynx-to-larynx on Nelly's "Just A Dream." I personally thought the Collective did a better job with it--since the original had featured Tim McGraw, the Nashville crew probably could relate to its Southern vibe more--but the judges went with the Yellowjackets. I guess a nice backstory really helps sometimes. Who would want to deny those poor kids in Kenya their $200,000 in prize money, right?
So now we are down to seven teams, and next week they will face possibly their toughest challenge yet, as they take on classics by the greatest artists of all time. Does that mean even MORE Bell Biv DeVoe? One can only hope...
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