Just Sam had already established herself as an American Idol Season 18 frontrunner with her gorgeously raw voice, vulnerable performances, hardship backstory, and likable tomboy persona. But when the 20-year-old journeyed from the Harlem projects to Hawaii this Sunday for the top 40 Final Judgment round, she suddenly transformed from humble subway singer to superstar. It was probably the most astounding and unexpected makeover in Idol history, so much so that judge Katy Perry looked like a living, real-time reaction GIF, mouth agape and eyes popped wide.
Just Sam’s previous performances had her belting empowerment anthems like “You Say,” “Rise Up,” and “I’m Here” in baggy unisex streetwear, sometimes with tears in her makeup-free eyes and her lucky busking box at her sneakered feet. But Sunday, not only was she all glammed up in an island-girl sarong and hair-flower and red lipstick, but she was paying tribute to Selena (whose 25th death anniversary is this week), joyously breezing through the uptempo “Como La Flor” entirely in Spanish — despite not actually being fluent in the language. Such a 180 departure from her usual somber balladry was a massive risk, but it was the perfect song choice to play in front of a boisterous live audience at Disney’s Aulani resort, and it showcased her versatility in a totally surprising way.
“That’s what we call a metamorphosis!” marveled Katy (once she finally maintained her composure and was able to process what she’d witnessed), while Katy’s fellow judge Lionel Richie gasped, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!”
Just Sam actually seemed more shocked than the judges. The next day, when she sat with the panel to find out if she’d advanced from the top 40 to the top 20 (spoiler alert: OF COURSE SHE DID), she confessed, “Last night was the first time in a very long time that I felt comfortable — and I felt beautiful.” Katy concurred, telling Just Sam, “You walked onstage, and you were the definition of elegance.” Lionel even told her, “I couldn’t be more proud if you were my own child.”
Just Sam should probably consider a name change, because as Lionel put it, there’s no “just” about this dynamite star-in-training. But while she easily secured her spot in the top 20, some other promising contestants weren’t so lucky.
Among Sunday’s Final Judgment eliminations were teen country singer Makayla Brownlee, who overcame a seizure to wow the judges in Hollywood Week, but failed to impress judge Luke Bryan with her too-drastic re-arrangement of Ingrid Andress’s “More Hearts Than Mine”; worship leader Cameron Leigh Smith, whose cover of Tasha Cobbs’s gospel ballad “Break Every Chain” was deemed too alienating and niche for the vacation-resort audience; and Jordan Jones, Devon Alexander, Geena, and Amber Fielder.
I was particularly disappointed by the latter two cuts – I thought Geena’s performance of Bruno Mars’s funky-fresh party-starter “Finesse” was a ton of fearless fun (even Katy praised Geena’s “hustle and desire to separate herself from the pack”), and I thought Amber’s “Good Kisser” struck just the right balance of sass and storytelling. Amber had already been through so much (she gave birth and then gave up her baby for adoption just three weeks before Hollywood Week, and admitted that she was an emotional wreck due to hormones surging through her body), but she hit the stage with a sense of eat-my-dust defiance, later saying, “I’ve never felt more free in my life!” Amber was so pleased with her performance, so when she found out that the judge weren’t nearly as pleased, her devastation was tough to watch.
As for those who, along with Just Sam, made it through to the top 20, I don’t really think one of those coveted spots should have gone to wannabe heartthrob Nick Merico, whose “When I Was Your Man” was too restrained, too in his head, and definitely too boy-band. Lionel seems to have gotten over his initial dislike of Nick, but I’m still on the fence about this guy. I was also underwhelmed by DeWayne Crocker Jr.’s gimmicky, reggae-rock-like remake of “Old Town Road,” but at least his advancement means we’ll get to see even more of his awesome great-grandma this season.
There was also what Katy called a couple of questionable “dice-rolls,” with the judges seemingly putting through contestants based on either their future potential or past promise. Though I appreciated Faith Becnel’s quirky personality, I thought her “Ain’t Nobody” was pure wedding-band shlock. As for Louis Knight, he became one to watch early on with his audition of an original song, but he has been coasting on that great first impression ever since. His Hawaii performance of Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill” exuded almost none of the necessary joy, so much so that Katy gave him a “talking-to,” saying, “We love you, but your future, based on last night, was not there.” But… Louis somehow got a pass anyway.
Several other contestants truly earned their top 20 spots. Louis’s onscreen bromance partner and possibly better half, Francisco Martin, had struggled with nerves in the past, almost dragging Louis down during their Hollywood Week duet, but when he epically sang Harry Styles’s “Falling” in Hawaii, he experienced a breakthrough moment. Luke called Francisco a “real artist, someone you natural root for,” someone who “checks every box.” Jonny West also got a talking-to from Katy, who warned him, “You’re playing a little bit of the self-sabotage game,” but I thought his piano cover of the Fray’s “You Found Me” was lovely and passionate, and I was happy to see him get a shot — though probably not as happy as his girlfriend, previously eliminated contestant Margie Mays, who watched him, proud and beaming, in the Aulani audience.
The night ended with two of the season’s most unique standouts and two of my personal favorites. Bluesman Jovin Webb – the one with, according to Lionel, the “instant identity” and “barbecue sauce” — worked the crowd like a pro, finishing off his fiery performance with a Michael Jackson toe-spin and a stage-drop so dramatic I was worried he’d just shattered both his kneecaps. Then Dillon James tastefully crooned Bob Dylan’s relevant-as-ever “The Time’s They Are a Changin’,” sounding goosebump-raisingly great and carrying himself like a classic-country Opry idol.
Dillon’s fate hung in the balance, because the episode ended with a cliffhanger — but despite some clever editing indicating that he won’t make it through when Final Judgment continues apace next Sunday, c’mon Idol ain’t fooling anyone. We all know this “spiritual cowboy” is riding straight through to the top 20 and beyond.
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