As a bit of world-building, which Netfllix’s Rhythm + Flow spends more time on than most other music competition shows, the main hosts—Cardi B, T.I., and Chance the Rapper—cruise down L.A.’s Fairfax Avenue in a two-tone Wraith. Chance is driving. T.I., who’s wearing a three-piece suit, is explaining the “intangible benefits” a pool of contestants stand to gain just by being seen by their panel of judges, whether those contestants move on in the competition or not. Cardi, sitting in the back, is perfect:
“How you know all these fancy words?”
“I’ve been to prison, Cardi. I spent a lot of time reading the dictionary.”
They’ve just had a full day of driving assorted expensive cars around sunny Los Angeles to scout talent for the competition’s first round of auditions, which have also taken place in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. Three new episodes of Rhythm + Flow will be released on each of the next two Wednesdays.
Essentially, it’s The Voice—Rhythm + Flow seeks to recreate the industry in miniature. You’ll get to survey an artist’s means, witness their struggle, and, if all goes to plan, join in their breakthrough, the one that comes after the first one, which is getting on streaming television in the first place. The competition won’t just be a matter of winnowing out the chaff from a series of on-stage performances, either: Competitors will be expected to battle, rap in cyphers, create original songs, and craft music videos. Essentially, each billed rap superstar is trying to find the next rap superstar, and Rhythm + Flow, the competition, will order their steps.
On the whole, the show’s aim—to manufacture the next big thing—is a bit of a tough sell in an age where hits arise from strange places for opaque reasons, and rap superstardom, as a tax bracket, is as impenetrable-slash-dependent-on-label-interests as it is. Yet it’s hard not to feel hopeful about Rae Khalil, the modest 22-year-old rapper from Torrance who wears only Carhartt and seems to have about 30 different flows. Or Inglewood IV, with his unkillable enthusiasm and his big red beanie, whom T.I. plucked from 1500 Sound Academy, although the seminar (featuring the late Nipsey Hussle), during which no one else laid down a verse, seemed to be assembled for the express purpose of propelling him onto the show.
Rhythm + Flow’s main draw, though, is its panel of judges. As in, it is ultra gratifying to see Snoop Dogg, whom I would really watch do anything, explain to an up-and-coming rapper from Pomona that he needs to work on his stage presence. “Now I don’t dance much,” he says, lying. “But I do what I do.” The deliberation process is short: We go down the panel of judges, each says what they liked about the performance or what they thought it was lacking. AmeriKKKan (“Knowledge and Kindness is Key,” not, you know, the obvious) probably should have chosen a different stage name. Streeb’s stage name was fine, and his raps were fine, but “fine” was all you could really say about him. Nas B looked like a million dollars, sure, but didn’t have much in the way of songcraft, voice, or well, rapping. Eventually, someone has to decide whether one of these rappers will be getting $250,000 and a guest spot on Spotify’s Rap Caviar Live. And while most panelists are gentle with their criticisms and tend to do a lot of talking around things, Cardi B is to the point. King VVibe, who rapped really, really fast, needed to give his writing room to breathe and to work on connecting with his audience, according to Chance, Snoop, and Tip. “I couldn’t understand you,” Cardi said, Cardily.
Should you watch it? Sure! I mean, I would watch it purely for Cardi B and Snoop Dogg reaction shots. Plus, it’s the only music competition show where everyone—the judges and the performers—can use potty words, so why not?
OK, but that doesn’t sound like much. Rhythm + Flow is great, zero-calorie reality television. You’ll be enveloped in the drama as it unfolds—there are close-up, fidgety dressing room shots where the contestants speak freely about their dedication to music and the sheer size of the opportunity. Not every performer gets a backstory, but the right ones do. You’re given just enough info to feel each success or failure, and when it’s over, you probably won’t think about Rhythm + Flow until the next Rhythm + Flow.
Should I check in on it in a few weeks? The most interesting thing about Rhythm + Flow has to be the evolution of challenges. Personally, I’m interested to see how the contests separate themselves during the music video phase of the competition. What if one of them wants to be a provocateur and eat a live roach on camera? What then?