When the show began last night, I was excited–because Jacob had the “pimp” spot. As the show progressed, however, my excitement waned a bit. The artists are beginning to separate themselves, some from the pack and some, well, just separated. Let’s begin with Naima, who so impressed me last week.

This week, Naima was not good. She performed “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” While she put her on spin on the song, making it a bit different, her vocals were not good. They were really all over the place, and Jennifer’s assessment was right on target. I like Naima’s voice, as it has some very unique qualities, off-key not being one of those I like. If she makes it to next week, and I think there’s a good chance she won’t, Naima should leave the dancing alone and focus on her vocals.

Oh, Paul. I’ve tried to get you, and I give up. I’m crying “uncle.” Paul butch–I mean, sang “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues.” While he has a somewhat unique, raspy quality to his voice, last night it came to me what I hear when Paul sings: A cartoon character who sucked on a helium balloon prior to taking the stage. Again, this was not a good performance for me. He is another who should leave out the dancing (if you can call it that). It just makes him look silly. Paul should be in the bottom three tonight, but he gets help from the site people love to hate, Vote for the Worst. He may well be safe again (much to my chagrin).

Next up last night was Thia, whose rendition of “Colors of the Wind” sounded exactly like Vanessa Williams’ original version. I have to agree with “the Dawg:” Thia is BOR-ing. Every week, she sounds exactly the same–no colors to her vocals, no inflections, no nothing. Randy hit the proverbial nail on the head with this one: She doesn’t know who she is musically. Didn’t I say that last week? Is Randy reading my articles or am I just that good? Probably, neither. The problem here is that while Thia has a nice vocal talent, she’s 15 years old.  How many 15-year-olds truly know who they are at that point? And knowing who you are as an artist is even tougher. Again, they should have made Thia wait a couple of years. She is reminding me of Lisa and Paris in Season 5, both great singers but both clueless as to their artistic identities.

Speaking of artistic identities, James is very clear on his. James’ offering last night was Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There For You.” While Steven warned him not to “get too poppy,” I think it’s good that James shows a bit of versatility. Bon Jovi has plenty of fans for their brand of rock, and James is wise to experiment while staying true to his genre. Everyone’s not into screaming, and I like that he can do more. James has great stage presence, and he’s a natural. I see him in this competition for weeks to come.

Like the other piece of bread on a sandwich, Haley is the other contestant who very obviously seems to be fishing for an identity. This week, she went back to R&B with Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” Haley does not have an R&B voice, and it just doesn’t work. Someone, please help Haley find herself (though I’m glad Ryan helped her find the lipstick on her chin; I couldn’t stop staring at it). Haley needs to do a bit of soul searching to see if she can find what type of artist she can best be. Just because you can sing does not mean you’re an artist. Find something you’re passionate about, and pursue that. I like Steven’s suggestion of following in her parents’ footsteps in blues. But, blues is a “niche” genre, and these kids want to be known worldwide. Good luck with that.

While everyone went crazy over Stefano’s rendition of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” I thought it was just okay. Don’t get me wrong: Stefano can sing, but I think he should have done the song an octave lower. He was borderline screaming the song. Thanks to Randy for pointing out who this song belongs to, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes and the late, great Teddy Pendergrass, but I digress. The good thing about Stefano is that he is a very emotional singer, but his rendition would have been much better in a lower register.

Contary to the judges’ opinions, I find Pia just as boring as Thia. What a surprise that she chose yet another power ballad, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” another Whitney number. In a sense, Pia is lacking identity as well if she thinks Whitney, Celine, and Chrissy are all the same artist. I’m bored with her, and the jumpsuit she had on was just as bad. Are the stylists working yet? If not, after seeing this number, I think it’s time.

Scott kept his country thing going with “Can I Trust You With My Heart.” At 17 years old, Scotty is one of the best of the bunch. He’s always consistent, and his big note at the end revealed that he can do even more. Scotty has a huge future ahead of him in country music. In a way, it’s sad that a 17-year-old has such a clear identity of himself musicially while some of the older contestants flounder. But, know himself Scotty does, and that’s why he’s so damned good.

Another contestant who seems to be losing steam is Karen. She sang “Love Will Lead You Back.” While this was a BIG improvement over last week, I am “on the fence” about Karen. She’s a good singer, but something seems to be missing. Perhaps with a bit of time, I will put my finger on that “something.” I suspect, however, that Karen will, once again, be in danger tonight and may beat Naima out of the door.

Finally, I’m starting to get Casey, who had an “Idol first” by performing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m not familiar with the group or the song, but I saw a real artist in Casey last night. He’s smart to choose songs that are a bit on the obscure side (for the bulk of this viewing audience), as that makes it easier to make them his own. While Casey sometimes appears to be “losing control” while he’s on stage, I see him more as losing himself in his performance. That’s a good thing. In the world of art, that art must take precedence over everything else. Casey has that, but it’s hard to tell how that will translate to the Idol viewing audience.

Lauren, like Scotty, continues to show us that 17 is merely a number when it comes to being a talented artist. While Laren made a good showing last night, I think there is a whole lot more there than what’s she shown us so far. I suspect she’ll be around to show us. She has a great voice, she’s animated on stage, and she’s very, very likable. That is a winning formula for Idol contestants.

Last but not least, Jacob continues to astound me. I was very happy that Jacob did not do another R&B song, as I don’t want to see him and that big old voice of his pigenholed. He showed us last night that he can sing a rock song too by choosing Heart’s “Alone.” Good for Jacob. His vocals are, without a doubt, some of the best I’ve ever heard on this show in 9 years of watching. Everyone who knows me knows how much I love Elliott Yamin’s voice because of his ability to lend emotion to the lyric. Jacob takes that a step farther: He sings with his entire being. It’s a beautiful thing. I worry that Idol audiences won’t see Jacob’s potential, and he will be eliminated far earlier than he deserves. Even if that happens, he won’t be going back to the spa anytime soon–other than as a customer.

So, who goes home tonight? I will never make that prediction, as it is just too difficult to call. While Jacob owns the best vocal chops, Idol audiences tend to vote on other things besides singing ability, so there is no way I’m going there. Based on performances alone, however, there are four contestants who I believe all equally deserve to be in the bottom three (yes, I said four): Haley, Karen, Paul, and Naima. Sorry, Naima. I think you’re fabulous, but you’re not showing it right now. Karen and Haley are being hurt by their inability to choose who they are artistically, and sorry folks–Paul isn’t good. While Thia also fails to recognize her artistic niche, I believe she will be safe this week. I suspect, however, that her days are numbered. I know fans of Paul are going to hate me, but I’m used to it. Remember Taylor Hicks? I LOVED the hate mail from his fans, so bring it on. Until next time…