Netflix is slowly but surely entering genres that were once the realm of networks and basic cable. Rhythm + Flow is their first music competition show, and with John Legend as one of the EPs, they’ve been able to recruit superstar judges T.I., Cardi B and Chance the Rapper, with more huge stars utilized as guest judges. And there’s lots of swearing. Read on for more…
RHYTHM + FLOW: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: Scenes of aspiring rap artists walking through their neighborhoods, then a shot of a contestant writing some lyrics.
The Gist: Rhythm + Flow is a reality competition whose goal is to find the next rap superstar. The structure of the show is familiar to anyone who has watched a music competition show, but with a bit more built-in backstory and drama (yes, more backstory than either The Voice or American Idol).
(Side note: This is probably a good place to let you know that new episodes of this show will drop weekly each Wednesday; Netflix is currently employing the same release strategy for their other big reality competition show of the moment, The Great British Baking Show.)
The three main judges are Cardi B, Chance The Rapper and T.I., and in the first episode, they hold auditions in Los Angeles (audition rounds will also be in Chicago, Atlanta and New York). In the first few segments, each judge visits with a fellow star, and tries to find a recruit for the audition. For instance, T.I. visits the music academy founded by the late Nipsey Hussle, where Nipsey (in one of his last on-screen appearances; Tip acknowledges as much in voice over) introduces Tip to a kid named Inglewood IV. We see that he lives with his wife and daughter in her mother’s house; he needs to make money to get his family out of his gang-heavy neighborhood in Inglewood, and he has a lot riding on this audition.
Chance visits his friend Anderson.Paak, and of the two performers he presents, Chance picks Rae Khalil to come to the audition. Cardi B visits with guest judge Snoop Dogg, who tells her about what they might be looking for. “We were born to be stars; we just needed someone to polish us up.”
During the audition, each contestant drops their rhymes, and each judge gives constructive feedback. At a certain point, one of the judges decides whether the person is going on to the next round or is going home. The next rounds after the auditions consist of challenges like rap battles, creating videos, jamming in cyphers (small groups), and using samples. The winner of the competition gets $250,000 and a spot on Spotify’s Rap Caviar Live.
Our Take: Rhythm + Flow is Netflix’s first music competition show, and it’s a series that really could only happen on Netflix. Like we wrote above, the structure of the show is no different than The Voice or AI (Snoop even says in an outtake, “This ain’t The Voice, motherfucker!”), but the performers and the judges speak and rap freely. It’s hard to do a show with Cardi B and not give the program a TV-MA rating, know what we mean? Cardi B, T.I. and Chance The Rapper are all executive producers, along with John Legend, Jeff Gaspin, Jesse Collins and Nikki Boella.
Even though the L.A. audition episode is close to an hour long, and the audition itself churns through a dozen performers, everything about the production, the judges and the performers are engaging, making the hour go by quickly. As you’d expect, the best stories and best performers are highlighted, along with a couple of performers that were interesting but didn’t make it. One such woman thinks she can write rhymes as well as Cardi B or Snoop, and that she’s got the right look. But when she opens her mouth, it’s obvious that her flow isn’t quite right, and the judges kindly let her know why.
Of course, the judges are the best part. Unlike other shows of this kind, all of the judges make sure they give tough but constructive criticism. Even though Cardi B does her Cardi B schtick when she talks to the contestants, often her criticisms are the sharpest, like when she tells the aforementioned young woman, “Do I see a 10-year-old girl say ‘I love her, I want to go to her concert!’? You have to be that girl.” And just because one of the people auditioning is endorsed by one of the judges doesn’t mean the others don’t have issues. Inglewood IV, for instance, gets dinged for the aggressiveness of his rhymes, with Snoop even going so far as saying, “I like you, but I just think you picked the wrong song to perform.”
But there’s some real talent in this initial episode, and what we really love is that no one is telling them that they have the stuff to be a star, like we sometimes hear on other shows. All the judges acknowledge that they have high standards, and that there’s a long way to go to win this competition, much less be a success after it’s over. We wish we heard some of that honesty elsewhere.
Sex and Skin: A couple of the raps have some sexual elements, but that’s it.
Parting Shot: After the L.A. audition is over, the three judges have a drink at the bar, and we hear that they’ll visit each of their hometowns (Chance in Chicago, Cardi B in New York, T.I. in Atlanta) for auditions. Cardi B says she’ll find the winner in New York, and Chance jokes, “If that person is visiting from Chicago.”
Sleeper Star: T.I. is more self-deprecating about his past than we realized. In a scene-set with the three of them driving to the audition, Cardi B asks T.I. where he got his “fancy words” from? “I’ve been to prison, Cardi… spent a lot of time reading the dictionary,” he jokes.
Most Pilot-y Line: Glossing over just people who didn’t move on is a little too easy. It’s always surprising when, on other shows, one of the initial gloss-overs actually goes far, making you wonder why the producers glossed over them to begin with.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Even if you’re not a fan of rap or hip-hop, Rhythm + Flow is going to keep you interested, given how high the stakes are for some of the contestants. Also, it’s the only competition where a judge talks about “getting fucked.” Top that, Blake Shelton!
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, VanityFair.com, Playboy.com, Fast Company.com, RollingStone.com, Billboard and elsewhere.