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.