Leona Lewis — no stranger to TV competitions, as one of the most successful alumni of the entire X Factor franchise — has always been known for her big, bleating, chest-beating ballads, ever since she first out broke out internationally in 2007 with “Bleeding Love,” co-penned by Songland judge Ryan Tedder. So when Lewis guested on Songland this Wednesday, it made sense that she was searching for another heart-on-sleeve weeper that would pass her all-important “goosebump test.” Instead, she walked away with a total banger that could pass a bump-and-grind test.
This week’s contestant Rozee, a self-described “emotional writer” who after losing both her parents at a young age turned to music-making for therapy, arrived suitably prepared with “Fighting for Us,” an autobiographical, anguished breakup ballad. But then, once Rozee was paired with Tedder himself, somehow the song underwent the most radical, unexpected — and awesome — Songland transformation yet. The result was almost unrecognizable, and utterly unlike anything Lewis had ever recorded before.
Tedder knew he was taking a big gamble, considering how contestant Olivia Lane had submitted the predictable body-positive anthem “Perfect Skin” and alt-pop crooner Rafferty had the Keane-like adult contemporary tune “Heart Full of Love,” both of which seemed more in Lewis’s wheelhouse. But Tedder assured Rozee that if she trusted him, he could turn “Fighting for Us” — which had potential, but sounded like a batch of unfinished ideas, with no real payoff in the chorus — into another, albeit very different, Leona Lewis smash.
“You’re either going to hate me or love me after this session,” Tedder warned Rozee. “So… I took a major risk with your song.” That was an understatement. Tedder had replaced the tune’s catchy chord progression (which he’d described as “very now,” and was undoubtedly the strongest part of the original version) with digital whistling reminiscent of Justin Bieber’s mega-hit “Sorry”; he’d brought in a hip-hop artist from the Dominican Republic named Tony Cabrera to sing in Spanish; and he’d upped the tempo by umpteen BPMs. He’d also changed the title to “Solo Quiero.”
Rozee was not mad. At all. “Do you know how excited I am?” she exclaimed upon hearing the revised track, which now sounded like a Latin-music Calvin Harris collabo. The singer, whose family is from St. Croix, loved how “Solo Quiero” tapped into her Caribbean roots. Tedder praised Rozee for her openness and collaborative spirit, qualities that could take her far in the music business.
Compare and contrast Rozee’s original and Tedder’s version below, and be amazed by the transformation:
When Rozee had first auditioned with “Fighting for Us,” she seemed glum and unsure of herself. Returning to perform “Solo Quiero” with Cabrera for Lewis and the judging panel, she was a changed woman. Rozee came across as such a confident, sassy pop star, and shared such caliente chemistry with her duet partner, that it almost seemed a shame for her to give this song away to someone else. This track was pure fire, a late-entry candidate for 2019’s Song of the Summer.
Tedder’s fellow judge Shane McAnally had previously complained that Rozee’s song needed more variation in its rhyme scheme. “The ear wants to be surprised,” he’d said. Well, everyone’s ears sure were surprised by this. And Lewis had said she wanted a song with “international appeal,” so she too got her wish. While “Solo Quiero” may not have seemed like the most obvious Songland option for the British diva, Lewis explained that she connected to the song because her own Caribbean roots (her father is of Guyanese descent). “It excited me,” she told Rozee. “I grew up on this.”
While I’m thrilled that Lewis took a chance by choosing Rozee’s tune, I do wish she’d at least allowed one other contestant, Annabelle Lee, to advance to Wednesday’s episode’s workshop round. All of the panelists seemed impressed by Lee’s bluesy, stompy, skronky, pure-dynamite piano ballad, “Ugliest Love” (think Lady Gaga in full-on vodka-bottle-smashing “Speechless”/“Million Reasons” mode, mixed with some “Bennie and the Jets”), and Lee really raised the energy in the room.
“I love everything about you; I can tell you love music,” judge Ester Dean to Lee. But Lewis ultimately felt this was a song she couldn’t put her stamp on. “It’s so your song, and I wouldn’t want to take that away from you,” Lewis explained to Lee. Hopefully Annabelle will get her chance to record “Ugliest Love” on her own someday.
Listen to Leona Lewis’s official version of “Solo Quiero” featuring Cali Y El Dandee and Juan Magán below.
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