Chance surprises Blake Shelton with ‘long game’ strategy on ‘The Voice’ Season 23 Knockouts premiere

Blake Shelton, Chance the Rapper on ‘The Voice’ Seaosn 23. (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/NBC via Getty Images)

The Voice Season 23 Knockout Rounds — featuring Mega-Mentor Reba McEntire, who’d been retiring original coach Blake Shelton’s adviser way back in Season 1 — kicked off Monday, and I have to say, I love the fact that a series that’s been around for 12 years can still surprise me. Monday’s episode was packed with twists and turns, and the coolest twist came courtesy of one of this season’s new coaches, Chance the Rapper, who cunningly played the “long game” to finally recruit a singer he’d been eyeing for weeks.

Chance had turned for pop storyteller Kala Banham during the Blind Auditions, but Kala chose this season’s other new coach, Niall Horan, at that time. This week, Chance claimed he’d tried to steal Kala during the Battle Rounds, but Kala had ended up moving to Kelly Clarkson’s team instead. I actually see no evidence of Chance’s supposed Steal attempt in my Battles recap from that week; maybe it was edited out of that episode, or maybe his claim was a fib and just another example of his sneaky gameplay. Regardless, Chance definitely was deceptive this week in order to ultimately get his way. And it worked like a charm.

So, here’s what happened. When Kala, Davey/Goliath-style, went up against four-chair Team Kelly contestant Cait Martin — who magnificently covered Whitney Houston’s “All the Man That I Need” — in Monday’s Knockouts, Kelly went with Cait. That result wasn’t a surprise. But as the other coaches commented on both performances (Kala emotionally interpreted the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”), Chance surprisingly snubbed Kala — instead only raving that Cait “smashed” her “spot-on Whitney” cover and “took that round by the throat.” Whether or not Chance’s gushing praise for Cait swayed Kelly’s decision at all was unclear… but as soon as Kala was available to steal, he pounced.

Blake also tried to steal Kala Monday, pointing out that he — unlike Chance — had just declared Kala the victor of this Knockout. But that’s when Chance’s long-game “strategy” and “tactics” became apparent. “Chance ended up [advocating for] Cait in the Knockout in order to get Kala on his team as a Steal, and I had no idea. I did not see than coming at all. Just when I thought nobody would play any dirtier than me, here comes Chance,” Blake said incredulously, in a game-recognizing-game moment.

Kala did pick Chance over Blake, so Chance’s long-term strategy paid off, and it might continue to bring dividends as Kala finally heads to the Live Playoffs as a permanent of his team. But as surprising as this outcome was, it was hardly Monday’s only Knockouts shocker. Read on for the night’s other big surprises.

TEAM BLAKE: Tasha Jessen vs. NOIVAS

NOIVAS, a former two-time American Idol contestant, brought all that TV experience to The Voice, doing an especially theatrical cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You” inspired by both Annie Lennox and Nina Simone’s epic versions (because this proud “girl dad” appreciates “feminine energy”). Reba was impressed, exclaiming, “Holy crap! I had no idea a guy would have that range!” Meanwhile, I had no idea that NOIVAS, who competed on Idol as the much more mild-mannered Savion Wright, could unleash the beast like this. Blake joked that he was worried that NOIVAS had taken the word “Knockout” too literally with this aggressive and unhinged performance, chuckling, “It was shocking and it scared me — and I liked that!” I liked it too, very much.

Tasha’s “Take Me to Church” — another song that Annie Lennox has fabulously put her stamp on, so let’s start the campaign to make Annie this show’s Mega-Mentor or Blake’s replacement in Season 24 — offered a lot less shock value. But she sang elegantly and masterfully, especially considering the sort of highest-of-highs/lowest-of-lows range that this Hozier ballad required. Kelly called Tasha’s performance “raw and beautiful,” saying either contestant would be a great asset to Blake’s team. Blake eventually faced his “fears” and picked the fierce and face-melting NOIVAS, but then Niall, who’d wanted Tasha all along, swooped in for the Steal.

WINNER: NOIVAS / STOLEN: Tasha Jessen moves to Team Niall

TEAM KELLY: Marcos Covos vs. Ali

I thought Marcos, who is gay, was going to have a more of a moment when he chose Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” and had a teary conversation with Reba about how he’d always had a close relationship with the Lord, despite being told by homophobes that he was unworthy of God’s love. But I wonder if all that emotion simply got the best of Marcos, because he gave really pitchy, unsteady vocal onstage; I remember him singing much better than this.

Meanwhile, Ali, who is deaf, crooned Daniel Caesar feat. H.E.R.’s sumptuous love ballad “The Best Part” and proved once again that — as Kelly put it — she “feels the music differently.” Ali really delivered when it mattered, although as Blake observed, she “really nails her intention every time.” Kelly said her decision here was “such a bummer,” but I think it was a pretty easy and obvious one.


TEAM NIALL: Gina Miles vs. Kate Cosentino

Niall grouped these contestants together as his “two female character singers,” but really, this was an apples/oranges situation. The meek and girly Gina did a vulnerable version of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” while Kate went with a snarling, stomping garage-rock take on Blondie’s “Call Me.” I preferred Kate’s creativity and risk-tasking spirit, indicating she was the truer artist of the two — Kelly told her, “This is your lane for you!” — but Gina delivered the technically superior vocal, which Kelly said gave her “Florence & the Machine vibes.”

Niall went with his “gut feeling” and chose Gina. I was disappointed see Kate go, but this show is called The Voice, so I get it; I just wish Kate had been stolen. I think Kate might have been better off trying out for American Idol, a show that in recent years has welcomed alt-rock mavericks like Maddie Poppe and Alejandro Aranda.

WINNER: Gina Miles

TEAM CHANCE: NariYella vs. Ray Uriel

This was maybe the most surprising Knockout of the night. NariYella was a four-chair turn and according to Niall “arguably the best singer in this competition,” while Ray was a one-chair “underdog” who “flew in under the radar.” But as Ray noted, he did have a “history of beating four-chair turns.” (In the Battles, Ray beat NOIVAS, originally a four-chair Team Chance frontrunner that Chance had blocked Blake from recruiting during the Blinds.) So, Ray was prepared for this showdown.

After I learned that NariYella was going to take on “Bust Your Windows,” I figured Ray had even less of a shot. But that Jazmine Sullivan breakup song has been covered a lot on singing shows throughout the years, so NariYella really needed to do something special with it. And she didn’t. Hers was, surprisingly, not a particularly fierce rendition; Blake even told NariYella, “There’s something holding you back.”

This misstep allowed the “shapeshifting” Ray to once again slip under the radar with his lovely cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Lately.” His performance was inspired by his own recent real-life breakup, so maybe he just connected to his Knockout song more than NariYella did to hers. Anyway, Chance admitted than if he were to base this week’s decision on both contestants’ overall body of work, he’d go with NariYella, but the new coach understood the assignment, so he focused solely on this specific Knockout and chose Ray. The real surprise was that no one even tried to steal NariYella. (Niall said he would have, if he hadn’t already used his one Steal on Tasha, but I really thought NariYella’s fellow diva Kelly would swoop in.) I never predicted that NariYella would exit the competition this soon, but I respect Chance for playing the game correctly.

WINNER: Ray Uriel

TEAM BLAKE: Kylee Dayne vs. Walker Wilson

This pairing was not so much like apples and oranges as it was like apples and, say, carburetors. My point is, Blake could not have paired up two more disparate singers than indie-pop quirky girl Kylee and skronky country-rocker Walker. And this was another Knockout result that I never saw coming.

Kylee took on the mighty Celine Dion version of Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself,” which Blake said was “biting a lot off” but would “help her step out and get her on people’s radar.” And that it did! It wasn’t the sort of song choice I would have expected from Kylee, and I certainly did not expect all those “Mariah riffs.” As Kelly noted, “The fact that you’re that sort of bold singer shows you want to win!”

Walker’s performance, of “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” was more on-brand and less ambitious, but the Waylon Jennings song with a rich “honky-tonk history” was a perfect fit for his rowdy, rawkin’ style. However, interestingly, Blake also understood the night’s assignment, and he based his decision on this specific Knockout, not on personal taste. So, yes, Blake went against genre, and he let the country contestant, Walker, go home. Wow. Who’d a thunk?

WINNER: Kylee Dayne

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