Entertainment

Netflix's New Hip-Hop Series 'Rhythm + Flow' Wants to Find the Best New Rappers in America

rhythm + flow
Netflix

Criticism has always been a crucial element to hip-hop's DNA. As the genre's permutations have shifted since its beginnings in the '70s, so too have its outlets deeming what works and what misses, from respected publications such as The Source, which has been in circulation since 1988, and the more recent outcrop of blogs to more informal settings like barbershops, all working to keep the culture fresh. This has led to its progression from Sugar Hill Gang's Chic-sampling "Rapper's Delight" to Kendrick Lamar's Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. Now that hip-hop is -- and has been -- the biggest genre in the world, the concept of a show that critiques and deconstructs what makes a hip-hop star seems the logical next step. Such programming is long overdue, especially after years of vocalist competition shows like American Idol and The Voice that have overlooked the genre completely. X Factor extended a small olive branch to rappers such as Astro in 2011, but only a fraction of finalists across the U.S. version's three seasons were hip-hop artists. 

Netflix's solution to hip-hop's extensive drought in televised music competitions is Rhythm + Flow, the next anticipated reality series following others like the glass blowing competition Blown Away and the shittiest bake-offs in Nailed It!. Set over 10 episodes, the semi-bingeable streaming offering follows the pursuits of T.I., Cardi B, and Chance the Rapper as they gather talent from hip-hop's most vital regions with the help of industry giants and test their viability as commercial superstars, the best of the bunch bubbling to the top. Billed as a three-week event, a handful of episodes premiered October 8, with more to follow on October 16 and October 23. Now available, the first batch of episodes covers the auditions process, which has always been a noteworthy and wildly entertaining portion of any music competition, and Rhythm + Flow keeps that trend alive. 

Episode 1 begins with a 4-minute teaser of what the show has in store  -- that is arguably pointless and irritating because, well, you've already clicked on the show -- and after transitioning into the episode's true contents, things get more interesting. T.I., one of the show's official judges and the ever-eloquent narrator, reveals that their first stop is Los Angeles. But before the auditions at Nightingale Plaza in Hollywood, the judges consult local gatekeepers for last-minute additions to the lineup and to capture the spirit of the scene. T.I. meets up with the late Nipsey Hussle, Chance checks in with Anderson .Paak, and Cardi B recruits Snoop Dogg to be a guest judge who represents and understands the city. 

The auditions begin, and the decisions of the judges are perhaps the least sound here in L.A., which is probably the result of them being foreign entities judging a region that they aren't rooted in. How L.A. is judged would differ drastically if Snoop Dogg was accompanied by West Coast stars such as YG, ScHoolboy Q, Buddy, or any of the artists who made cameos earlier on in the episode. Nonetheless, the crew (mostly) scrapes out the best auditionees from the city, and afterwards the three mainstays split up to visit their respective hometowns and explore the talents that each has to offer.

In rather formulaic standalone episodes, Cardi treks back to New York, T.I. returns home to Atlanta, and Chance brings the show to Chicago. Following the format set in the L.A. installment, each artist assesses up-and-coming rappers that have been screened by local legends before really getting their hands dirty with the official auditions. In New York, Cardi stops by Hot 97 to check in with the radio legend Ebro Darden before hearing the majority of the artists later at SOBS alongside Fat Joe and Jadakiss. In similar fashion, T.I. hits Killer Mike's Swag Shop on Edgewood to hear three rappers hand-picked by the Run the Jewels MC. Then, the King of the South enlists Quavo and Big Boi to assist with the Atlanta auditions at the Blue Flame, a Westside strip club which happens to be the last place where the late Shawty Lo was seen alive before his tragic car crash in 2016. Chance closes out the solo outings with possibly the coldest auditions in Chicago. Before judging the Midwest contestants with Twista and Royce da 5'9", he joins Lupe Fiasco at Washington Library for another micro audition. Chance's episode manages to distinguish itself from the others -- the artists who perform in front of him and Lupe present some of the most creative acapella verses from the first four episodes. At once point, Chance becomes so enthralled, and rightfully so, with one of the performances that he sends her (the incredible Big Mouf' Bo) directly to the next round of competition, and she bypasses the auditions altogether.

rhythm and flow
Netflix

In New York, the judges were more focused on a complete package and very critical of fashion choices, and they were probably the most playful bunch when compared to the other cities. Atlanta relished in its own cool and was the most lenient, offering contestants who bombed their performances another chance at the spur of the moment. As T.I. said when visiting Killer Mike, "Success is when opportunity meets preparation," and for a city that long went overlooked as a reputable hip-hop source, that sentiment matched the episode perfectly. Although Chicago's auditions were the most blunt, the episode also featured a widely varied performance roster. Xxxtentacion-inspired artists mingled with traditional Chicago drill and Lil Dicky's brand of comedy rap, but Chance, Royce and Twista handled them all respectfully with great developmental feedback. 

At the conclusion of the first round of episodes, 30 artists have made the cut, and next Wednesday the official competition begins. Cardi, T.I. and Chance have had opportunities to exhibit who they are as judges, and Rhythm + Flow has played its first hand. Where the series excels is its raw representation of putting oneself on the line as a hip-hop artist. We've all enthusiastically or begrudgingly listened to loose rhymes from someone trying to prove themselves as a rapper, so it's realistic and inspirational for Rhythm + Flow to follow that format. Instead of remixing hip-hop standards, each contestant puts their art on full display, so the stakes feel inherently higher and more emotionally intense than previous televised music competitions where performers are typically singing covers of other musicians' songs to showcase their talent. 

Sure, Rhythm + Flow stumbles into familiar pitfalls: The judge-led embarrassment of some contestants for the sake of comedic relief is shoehorned into what's mostly a constructive competition, and it doesn't always hit. During her standalone episode, Cardi even jokes that she is paid to be mean. Whether or not there is any truth in her joke, there are definitely moments where the judges seemingly switch gears from champions of hip-hop to famous assholes simply because the show calls for it. Also, Rhythm + Flow is just as obsessed with producing mainstream industry acts as any of its non-rap predecessors. Whether that is a strength or a weakness is dependent on the diversity of one's Spotify library, but many promising acts didn't make it past their audition because they were too niche. Over the last decade, unconventional hip-hop acts such as Tyler, the Creator, Tierra Whack, and ironically Chance the Rapper have emerged and gained widespread notoriety despite their weird (and sometimes jarring) breakout material. For Rhythm + Flow to disregard many of the alternative artists who appeared on the show disservices them and makes the series appear a bit out of touch.

Ultimately, Rhythm + Flow still has time to pull out more stops before its final verdict. It is undoubtedly an appreciated continuation of hip-hop's visibility, but it finds itself situated somewhere between the good and the bad. Cons such as the contestant backstories foreshadowing their successful auditions are too cheap for this beautiful production, which seems to be rooted in a genuine appreciation for hip-hop culture. With the next clusters of episodes arriving over the next two weeks and similar programming like Making the Band returning soon, Rhythm + Flow can either use rap to profit from another forgetful reality show or become the televised music competition that hip-hop deserves. Because right now, it's still up in the air.

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Joshua Robinson is a contributor to Thrillist.