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'The Voice' recap: Knockouts begin, with Rihanna along for the ride

'The Voice' recap: Knockouts begin, with Rihanna along for the ride
Rihanna helps out as a "key advisor" to the coaches and contestants on "The Voice." (Trae Patton / NBC)

With the blind auditions and the battles behind it, Season 9 of "The Voice" moved on to the knockout rounds Monday. And speaking of knockouts, Rihanna was on hand (wearing a fetching denim bustier-and-slacks combo) to pitch in as a "key advisor" to all the coaches.

The R&B megastar had no trouble connecting with the contestants and giving them what appeared to be truly useful guidance. But she was clearly more comfortable with some coaches than others: Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani and Pharrell Williams, sure. Blake Shelton? Not so much.

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Shelton said he was desperate to be on a nickname basis with Rihanna. "Can I call you RiRi?" he asked. Then he begged her to bestow a nickname on him. Eventually, she did

"Toad," Rihanna said dryly.

"Toad?! Oh, I get it. Kiss the frog, he turns into a prince," Shelton said, as Rihanna rolled her eyes. "Are you really hitting on me on national television right now?"

Rihanna looked truly uncomfortable. "Can we cut, please?" she asked whoever was behind the camera.

Ouch. Clearly the ol' crusty cowboy charm was not working on RiRi. And the harder Shelton tried, the less impressed Rihanna seemed, although he did get a reluctant, if hearty, guffaw from her when he declared that, when the tabloids started writing about their "serious chemistry," they'd give them the nickname "Bliana" or "Rake."

The recently divorced country coach really didn't have a good night with the ladies overall, in fact. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to woo beautiful contestant Amy Vachal, who was unexpectedly cast aside by Team Pharrell, to join his team. She picked Levine. Double ouch.

Better luck next time, Blake.

Anyhow, you remember how the Knockouts work, right? The coaches again pair up members of their teams, but this time each singer steps out solo to perform a song of his or her own choosing. After both singers in a pair perform, their coach names a winner, leaving the other vocalist available to be stolen or, failing that, go home. Each coach has only one steal to use during the knockouts and each will eventually emerge with a team of five singers to take into the live playoffs.

Here's how Monday's knockouts played out:

Andi & Alex vs. Blaine Mitchell (Team Adam): Levine paired rocker Mitchell, whom he had stolen from Team Blake in the battles, with twin duo Andi & Alex because, he said, they all had an "off-the-beaten-path" thing going on. Mitchell showed his power and the strong stage moves he'd honed by fronting his own band with a steadily building performance of James Bay's "Hold Back the River," bringing the coaches to their feet. Then again, Andi & Alex also earned a standing ovation with their idiosyncratic intermingling harmonies on Keith Urban's "Stupid Boy." Still, Mitchell's dynamic song choice and onstage dynamism carried the day. "Blaine's voice is as strong as his presence," Levine said, after declaring him the winner. "That's a big deal." No one stole Andi & Alex. "I only have one steal, so I'm being extra picky," Shelton said.

Braiden Sunshine vs. Ellie Lawrence (Team Gwen): This matchup — between the youngest contestant in the competition (Sunshine) and the one who may be most dedicated to Stefani (Lawrence) — had heartbreak written all over it. Curly-haired 15-year-old Sunshine showed off his old-soul musical spirit and his startlingly mature vocal chops with Michael Bublé's rendition of the classic "Feeling Good," showing so much control and confidence during his performance that Stefani was moved to exclaim, "It's happening!" Lawrence followed with a stricken-looking take on Demi Lovato's "Cool for the Summer," but she couldn't summon the requisite sass and her fate was sealed. All the coaches seemed to agree that Sunshine had won. Levine said, with his new suit, hairdo and maturity, it was as if the teen were celebrating his bar mitzvah and embarking on his life as a man. Stefani made it official, and Lawrence went home — tearful yet grateful — unstolen.

Barrett Baber vs. Blind Joe (Team Blake): Shelton teamed up two of his favorites — two strong country singers, each with "so much experience," he explained, it seemed "only … fair" to pit them against each other. Baber took command with the Zac Brown Band's "Colder Weather," connecting with the lyrics, which he said spoke to his difficulty leaving his family to compete on the show. Alas, he might have connected with his audience a bit better by keeping his eyes open more while he performed, but that apparently didn't bother the coaches. Blind Joe — under strict instructions from his coach not to ad lib and chit-chat his way through the song — delivered a nervous rendition of the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson country classic "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," allowing his voice to veer off pitch in spots. After saying both singers — who had overcome setbacks in life — made him "want to be a better man" himself, Shelton declared Baber to have been the winner, saying he'd based his decision on who he believed had sung best. "Blind Joe had a few mishaps out there and Barrett is a little bit more polished," he later explained. No one stole Blind Joe.

Amy Vachal vs. Madi Davis (Team Pharrell): Williams paired coach-favorite singer-songwriter Vachal with 16-year-old Dallas teen Davis because, he said, "Both have these delicate voices that also have power." In rehearsals, he seemed deeply taken with Davis, who had elected to sing Joni Mitchell's "A Case of You," a choice Williams said defined her as "an artist." Vachal sang Etta James's "A Sunday Kind of Love," caressing the vocals but not really releasing her body into the song, which was something Rihanna, in particular, had urged her to do. Davis, on the other hand, truly delivered the emotions behind her song in a performance. Stefani called both vocalists' singing "delicious." Shelton said they made him want to "take a bubble bath." Williams dubbed Davis the winner, leaving Vachal open for a steal. Both Levine and Shelton made a play for the ethereally gorgeous singer. But Shelton's entreaties failed to hit their mark. Vachal picked Levine. "I love everything about Amy's voice and I just think it sucks that two times now she's turned me down," the country coach later said, then took one of his now-trademark jabs at Levine's bald-headed look. "I can't believe Dr. Evil got Amy."

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Chance Pena vs. Ivonne Acero (Team Blake): Shelton pitted his two young battle-round steals against each other in order to discern which would fare better in the live playoffs. Adorable teen Pena elected to sing Imagine Dragons' "Demons," hoping to show he could cross genres. Alas, the song didn't give him much room to show much else and the performance seemed especially narrow dynamically. Meanwhile, Acero — who had failed to make a team in a previous season — proved herself more than ready for the live shows with her lush, deeply felt take on Katy Perry's "Part of Me," coming into her own vocally like a butterfly extending its wings and taking flight for the first time. Shelton chose Acero to move forward with, saying she was "mastering the art of losing those nerves and singing her tail off." Or, as her old coach Williams put it, "She understands how to sing for her life now." No one stole Pena.

Jordan Smith vs. Viktor Kiraly (Team Gwen): The last knockout of the night was by no means the least. Far from it. Both the high-voiced Smith, whom the coaches affectionately call "the unicorn," Levine revealed, and Kiraly, already a pop star in Hungary, have "strong personas and they both have cannon voices," their coach said. Smith proved he was more than able to tackle Adele's vocally challenging "Set Fire to the Rain," earning a standing ovation from the coaches and prompting Shelton to call it "one of the greatest vocals I've ever heard live in my life." Yet Kiraly rose to meet him with a buttery-rich rendition of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You," hitting some equally impressive notes and looking like a total pro. "There are about a hundred reasons to go with both of you guys," Levine said, before naming Smith as the winner. Kiraly came through OK in the end, though. Stefani swept him up in a steal.

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Tonight, more knockouts. Hooray!

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