Are there two things that could run more counter than the shiny, happy spectacle of young kids singing a capella – essentially getting their nerd on –and hip-hop music? Granted, “The Sing-Off is trying its darndest to give voices-only singing some more “cred,” and hip-hop has done everything it can to become as shiny and artificial a spectacle as covering pop songs with all-voices is… but still, it does seem like a capella and hip-hop are coming from two different sides of the road, and I’m not sure I’ll be convinced of their meeting place on “The Sing-Off” by the end of this programming block. We shall see…

The opening number gives me some hope. This number, B.O.B’s “Beautiful Girls,” seemed hesitant at first, like it didn’t want to take off, but it did anyway. It left behind a few soloists that couldn’t handle this song’s arrival at the stratosphere, but for the most part, the entire ensemble made this the best group performance we’ve seen on The Sing-Off stage for weeks. The right song choice, the right arrangement, and the right soloists. Thank goodness.

Nick is a bit heavier with the praise then I am. Nick says they took us to the streets with that B.O.B ditty. They took us to the streets Nick? Really? Did they? Did they, really? I know B.O.B is on a street when he sings the song in the video, but… maybe a little too far, Nick.

The show wants to let us know how serious this new “Sing-Off” twist is; its as legit as hip-hop music is! You see, tonight, the two bottom groups will have to sing against each other on the same song – Nelly’s “Just A Dream” – and the loser is out. I think this is maybe a more fair way to decide at this stage who goes home, and I think it’s definitely a fair way to fill the last twenty minutes considering how much gamesmanship this could add to this friendly competition, but all I’m thinking as this video is explaining this twist to me is this: You mean Pentatonix and Afro-Blue did arrangements of this song and there’s like 0% chance I’m going to get to hear them?!? Dammit. You’re teasing me, Sing-Off!

Part 1

Dartmouth Aires. My expectation: “Club Can’t Handle Me” seems fitting I guess. It’s a raucous, look-at-me! kind of song. This is a very racous group. I don’t see how this could go wrong. Yet they are very nervous as they wait to take the stage. I guess I could see why. These guys are all theater, no street. The only street they would be comfortable on is Broadway, so…

Definite tuning issues, especially in the build at the end. The rapping was… awkward. And I personally can’t stand the lead soloist, Michael’s, vocals. (Listening to them later, I’ve warmed up to them a little but… not a whole lot.) I felt like the song was too fast and I was missing the middle voices. All that being said… This was a pretty good performance. It got over a rough start to really rock when it needed to rock, and so the breakdown had the desired effect. I would absolutely put this on my Sing-Off playlist and listen to this again. Will this put them in the conversation for front-runner status? No, but it won’t threaten their position as a safe middle-of-the-pack choice.

I do believe that Afro-Blue is the only group tackling something tonight that is definitively old-school, a stone-cold classic – the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly.” I am literally drooling thinking about what sort of amazing things the geniuses in Afro-Blue might be able to do with a great recording like this one. In a twist, Roberta Flack is an alumnus of their school, so this means even more to them.

(May I say how still utterly shocking it is that Afro-Blue was in the bottom two last week? Ugh!!!! Back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

So you know I think this group was perfect. We’ll skip past that. What do I think makes the difference this time? What made this arrangement work so well was that it was just an ounce slower then you might have thought it should have been, and so it had time to marinate in some more patented Afro-Blue complex harmonies and the absolute silk that is Christine’s voice. Also, Reggie, the bass, gets the MVP award week after week because his moving bass lines are absolutely perfect encapsulations of how subtle movement in music – especially jazz as opposed to pop – can captivate your ear, keep you moving through a song, and create that hook that keeps you coming back for more. Reggie is that hook. Go Reggie!

The Collective is probably going home tonight – that’s my prediction as I watch their video. This is not a risky bet. And, on top of all that, I feel like they’re playing it safe with the most popular, most current song being performed tonight, “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull and Ne-Yo, which is split pretty evenly between crooning and rapping. I think it’s exactly the kind of safe, simple choice (like “Rolling in the Deep”) that will expose their weird arranging tendencies and get them booted.

Yep they took a song that wasn’t supposed to be exposed to this much pressure and added way to much frosting and harmony and sprinkles and unnecessary ruckus to it. Rather then stripping the song down – this isn’t a super simple song, it has a few different complex elements to it – they adorned it with so much fluff that it confused me and turned me off. Essentially they crashed the ship. This was a very shouty performance, I couldn’t understand the rap, and the semi-salsa beat threw me off. I think this group has been making quite a statement for why they should stick around up until now, but with this mess, they will definitely end up in the bottom two this week.

Vocal Point is dedicating this performance to Ben’s father. It is a brave move while also being pretty safe. It’s brave because their rather intentionally running counter to the spirit of this week. They are pretty dramatically altering the arrangement to make it suit them so that they can get their emotions across unhindered. That’s brave. But they get a free pass because it is all being done so they can appropriately express themselves. It’s safe because… who’s going to eliminate them on an “In Memorium” performance? No one.

That being said, I was surprised by how honest the judges were. It’s true, this was Vocal Point at their emotional best, but at their technical worst. There were major key and tempo issues on this song and I didn’t appreciate some of the melodic changes the group made to keep this in their comfort zone. Ben’s verses were gorgeous and moving, but the choruses were awkward. But this week I’ll give them a free pass, and the judges will as well.

Part 2

Urban Method… this week was made for them. Literally, I think they’re trying to goose this group by picking this theme; this show has been unbelievably kind to Urban Method. That being said, if Urban Method fails, they’re pretty much done. And they already get negative points for chickening out of a Tupac joint and going instead with the Hayley Williams-led “Airplanes,” which is just about the least urban thing this group could have done.

Mrrr. It’s so… good. But not great. I feel like Urban Method will never cross that threshold and make me realize what’s special about them. That’s the thing: they can’t convince me they’re special. “California Love” might have convinced me, but they played it safe, and what did we get – a perfectly acceptable, shouty performance with great bass and kinda-weak female vocals. So we’re back to Week 1 with this group. This was a little more playfulthan Week 1, and I appreciate that, but still, that’s negative progress. I think they’re still a favorite, but I personally and tired of them.

Know who I’m not tired of? Pentatonix! I am a total Pentatonix fanboy. I feel like they could do anything at this point.They’re on a legendary tear, and I hope to god that tear doesn’t stop here.

It won’t. That performance of “Love Lockdown” by Kanye was filthy! It was, as Ben put it, “mean.” It was “primal.” It was, according to Sean, “cold.” It was pretty much any adjective you can think of because it covered every good connotation of every word – positive or negative – we have. This performance was good, and it was baaaaaaaaaad.

   What’s so impressive is that Pentatonix can go from the most cheerful, retro, artificial performance one week to this sort of visceral, from-the-gut, organically angry place this week and you appreciate both sides of the coin – each song is its own wonderful journey, but you can also see it as this mission that this group is on. Every decision this group makes is so meticulous. This is the only group I can say that every fist-pump, every step, every harmony is thought out and comes across to the audience as an intentional message. And this week’s message was scary. Pentatonix was uncompromising on stage. They took no prisoners because if they had prisoners, they would have killed them. Scott growled with a purpose, and the looks on Kevin’s and Ari’s faces… well, they weren’t acting angry, they were actually angry. Two minutes after the song was over, Kevin was still frowning. That’s how much this performance took both the group and their audience away. What a great moment on The Sing-Off stage.

Delilah has been really weak in the past few weeks, and I really think they pulled out a legitimately very good performance here (not great, but close) that will do a great service to them and finally reminds me what I loved about this group going into Week 3 once upon a time. They started out rough, no doubt, but I feel like they pulled out a performance that I would want to hear again. So good for them, I do want the girls to stay in this competition and keep all these silly boys at bay.

The Yellowjackets might be in trouble (I doubt it, I think Delilah will end up in the bottom two, but I’m trying to create drama here so you keep reading… so shoot me!). The judges did not like their performance of Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” (a song I love) as much as I did. To be fair I heard different problems from the ones the judges pointed out – the Yellowjackets had some major breath control issues, and so I heard some disquieting gaps in the chorus because the stagger-breathing wasn’t working out. I also heard a pretty big stumble on the rap (though color me shocked that Jamal chose the hardest of the verses – the double-time verse – so props for that). All in all, though, I think that this group’s earnest performance was a high-quality and enjoyable one. I‘ll concede that the Jackets will always be more one-note than, say, a chameleon like Pentatonix, but I don’t know that that’s the biggest crime we’re seeing on this stage.

But alas… the judges have pointed out the Yellowjackets’ crime as heinous enough to earn them a place in the bottom two. Shocker! But I can almost guarantee they’re safe since The Collective’s take on “Just A Dream” was actively bad. It hurt me. The Yellowjackets version won’t assuage any fears about this group’s dynamic-phobia but it was, like… in tune and… made sense? So the Jackets have that over The Collective.

Ben seriously chose The Collective? Really? Anyway, Sara and Shawn picked the Yellowjackets, and all is right with the world.

So let’s take inventory of who’s left in “The Sing-Off”:

To do this I will, in my continuing quest to marry the disparate threads of arcane pop culture like singing competitions and monster movies with sporting competitions, compare the top 7 groups with the top 7 teams in the latest BCS rankings. What will the… *shoo-shoo-shoo* future… bring?

The Contenders

Who is #1 LSU? The top dawg is clearly Pentatonix. They are flawless and methodical. When they get out there, the audience sounds like Death Valley during a night game. A perfect team, full of intensity, seemingly flawless. Might they trip up? Anyone could, but it sure seems hard to believe that a unit this tightly wound could come apart.

Who is #2 Alabama? Call me crazy, but I don’t think that both Afro-Blue and Pentatonix will make it to the finals. I’m not just saying that to make this stupid metaphor work. I firmly believe that a safer group – like Vocal Point or the Yellowjackets – will play the “worthwhile opponent” in the final matchup while one of the genius groups sits on the sideline, scorned by the judges. Here’s what I’m saying: Afro-Blue, the less flashy of the two groups, has shown some chinks in their armor, but, even worse, the judges have been actively looking for them, trying to keep this group back with the rest of the pack while letting Pentatonix fly away. Afro-Blue is in danger of falling out of this competition just so the judge’s can keep expectations from getting to high – I worry about it every time I see the judge’s not fully willing to commit to this group. Afro-Blue is a little too special for this competition. But if Pentatonix stumbles (unlikely, but it could happen) expect Afro-Blue to get the super-group spot in the finals.

The Wannabe Contender

Who is #3 Oklahoma State? Urban Method is flashy and fly, but does anyone actually think that, when it comes time to face another team in a grudge match, they can prove themselves to be anything other then above-average? They’re being sold as a frontrunner, but don’t buy the hype.

The Underdogs

Who is #4 Boise State? Clean-cut and earnest Midwesterners who keep chipping away at America’s cold hearts with one great performance after another, one great story after another. Dawww! But, let’s face it, Vocal Point doesn’t come from a major conference – they make a great third fiddle in the year-end polls, but no one’s ever going to put them in the winner’s circle based on charm alone. They sing easy songs, have an easy-going dynamic and rarely challenge themselves with a truly formidable foe. The judges like to see a tougher road to the finals. Vocal POint will keep singing great, but soon their great won’t be good enough.

Who is #5 Clemson? Like Clemson, the Dartmouth Aires are on a hot-streak right now. They’re adorable in their own “look at us” kind of way, they have momentum, they’re maybe a bit overenthusiastic (okay wayyyy to overenthusiastic), but they’re likable for sure. And they’re going to stumble. The Aires are the only college group to not hit a stumbling block yet, and its nice to imagine they’ll ride that clean record into the finals, but lets face it: it’s unlikely. The Aires are going to stretch too far at exactly the wrong time, and The Yellowjackets, who had their problems earlier, will eclipse them.

The Outliers

Who is #6 Stanford? Of all the guy groups, who are all starting to blend together as the week’s go on rather than grow more distinct (seriously, there’s little gap between 4, 5 and 6 here), the Yellowjackets have the most recognizable faces. They’re getting a reputation as a sort of bland contender without many highs or lows, but what they do have is a Heisman candidate in Jamal, who is a judge’s favorite. They also have a secret weapon in Aaron, the angel voiced tenor. I expect them to rocket to the top in this competition and play the winner of the Pentatonix-Afro-Blue showdown in a rather lopsided final. The Jackets will have a fun time in the finals, but they don’t stand a chance against a real heavyweight. (And yes, this means I’m picking Stanford to lose to either LSU or Alabama.)

Who is #7 Oregon? Delilah has a mark in the loss column already, and that rough patch is going to make it impossible for them to claw their way back into the finals. They’ll finish a safe, respectable fifth in the polls, but there is too much consistent talent ahead of them to reward a group that faltered so clearly in the early week’s of the season. They’re pretty yes (got to love those ever-changing uniforms) but this is a competition, and Delilah have essentially played themselves out of it even though they’re still in the competition.