On the second episode of NBC’s new talent show Songland, aka “Shark Tank for Songwriters,” four more aspiring songsmiths performed their unreleased compositions for a panel of pros — Ryan Tedder, Ester Dean, and Shane McAnally — and for guest star will.i.am, who was on the hunt for hits for the next Fergie-free Black Eyed Peas album. And will.i.am’s enthusiasm level was so Red Bull-level intense, he made the Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” seem like something by Leonard Cohen or Elliott Smith.
Yes, Will had a feeling that tonight was gonna be a good night, indeed. But those four contestants had no idea how good a night it would actually be for all involved.
“Every single artist like myself that comes on this show has their fingers, toes, and eyes crossed, hoping we hit the lottery, because that's what it's like when you find a hit,” will.i.am declared with tevangelical zeal at the top of the show. “I'm looking for a song that can connect different walks of life — fathers with daughters, moms with sons, make old people feel young, make young people feel important. And that song will come from one place: Songland! … I’m leaving here with the Black Eye Peas’ next hit song.”
As it turned out — spoiler alert! — Will left the show with the Black Eyed Peas’ three next hit songs, selecting tunes from all but one of the four contestants. And he even doled out a pretty awesome consolation prize to the one songwriter he turned down. Will was like the Oprah of TV talent shows: “You get a songwriting credit! You get a songwriting credit! And you get a songwriting credit!” This show has much better odds than The Voice or American Idol.
However, it took some work for those three winning songs to be album-ready. Here’s what happened…
Josh Logan, “Boxes”
This former marketing executive’s tune was bright and peppy, but in a dated, Robbie Neville/Matthew Wilder sort of way. Tedder thought the song was “a little cute,” and Dean thought it needed to make a “bigger,” more serious statement. But let’s face it, “Boxes” had the hammer-over-the-head repetition that is the trademark of the hip-pop band that brought us “My Humps.”
This anthem “about spreading love, compassion, and coming together and being united” like the obvious, intentional sequel to BEP’s "Where Is the Love?" But it was generic and forgettable; will.i.am became noticeably more subdued during Charisma’s not-so-charismatic performance, and he said her lyrics were “too on-the-nose.” McAnally suggested Charisma dig into her experience as an Indian immigrant living in America to come up with a more impactful message.
Adam Friedman, “Be Nice”
This guy recorded his early music on Hooked on Phonics tapes, and will.i.am sure was hooked on Friedman’s phonics. So was I! This goofy, feelgood rap track was a ton of funky-fresh fun. I couldn’t stop smiling, and neither could the judges -- especially will.i.am, who was already planning the marketing: “That’s a bumper sticker! That’s a T-shirt!” This song was different. It was nice. And it seemed liked the clear winner, the MVPea.
Ray Goren, “Oh Lord”
Here was another happy shiny song in a “Where Is the Love?” vein. “It was written to send a message like, ‘Hey, we can get through a hard time regardless of politics, regardless of what you believe in, what color you are, or what religion you are,’” explained Goren. But it was way too preachy, and while booming gospel chorus had potential, but the spoken- (more like shouted-) word verse took way too long to get there. Will ultimately passed on this song, but Goren didn’t walk away a loser. “It's a no, but it’s a yes. We're not gonna go further going in the studio, but I would like to go in the studio with you, if you would allow me to feature on the song,” offered Will. Wow! There is the love!
Next, during the studio sessions, Tedder drastically changed the pop production of Charisma’s “Invincible,” giving it some cool, call-and-response swag. When he and Charisma performed the revised version for will.i.am and the panel, with Tedder adding a new rap, the vibe was a bit indie (think Miike Snow, Portugal. The Man), a bit ravey, and, as Will put it, very “right now.”
McAnally stretched out the verses of Logan’s ”Boxes” verse to support its chorus more. The world-music-y, percussive production reminded me of Bastille or M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” only not as cool. The lyrics, though rewritten, were still trite, and the chorus was still lazily repetitive. This wasn’t McAnally’s best work. But will.i.am dug it.
Meanwhile, Will was so inspired by “Be Nice” that he actually went in the studio himself to work on Friedman’s track (which had been officially assigned to Dean), making it bass-heavier and dirtier. “When I fall in love with something, I go all the way,” Will proclaimed, later admitting that he’d been working on all three songs on his own time. (“He is breaking the show!” laughed McAnally.) The new “Be Nice” was less nice — slinkier, with a dark-disco vibe reminiscent of Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” I sort of felt like the music had been stopped. The bright energy of the original was sadly gone. But when Will got up and freestyled over the track, it made sense. It totally worked for his vibe.
Will’s favorite entry was “Be Nice,” but he was “so freakin’ over the moon” for Songland that instead of just going with one winner — as last week’s guest John Legend did, and presumably all future guest stars will do — he announced: “Yo, we got the jams. I was in my studio working on the record and then something told me to just get out of the hole I was in and come on the show. And I'm so freaking happy that I did. I'm taking three songs off the [upcoming Black Eyed Peas] album so these three songs can be on the album. All the songs are gonna make Black Eyed Peas' album. They jams! That's the bop! Give it to me!”
Dang. And at this rate, will.i.am and the Peas might even end up recording both versions of “Be Nice,” one as a B-side. But until then, check out the nicest Songland judge’s current version of Friedman’s track (featuring Snoop Dogg!), released immediately Tuesday on iTunes through BMG.
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