Rhythm + Flow Is American Idol for the Hip-Hop Era

The new Netflix series isn’t rap’s first music-competition show, but it is the best.

Rhythm + Flow judges Snoop Dogg, Chance the Rapper, Cardi B, and T.I.
Rhythm + Flow judges Snoop Dogg, Chance the Rapper, Cardi B, and T.I. Adam Rose/Netflix

“This ain’t The Voice, motherfuckers,” guest judge Snoop Dogg proclaims early in the run of Netflix’s new rap-competition show, Rhythm + Flow. It’s almost what linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin called a performative utterance—a sentence that enacts its own reality simply by being stated, like a wedding vow. What sets Rhythm + Flow apart from two decades of American musical TV contests is not only that it’s about hip-hop—tried before, but never with mass success—but that its berth on a streaming service lets it toss away the “family friendly” tone of broadcast TV sing-offs. (The first four episodes premiered last week, three more were released today, and the last three are set for next Wednesday; reviewers could preview all but the final two.)

Presided over by the benevolently stern Dirty South trap-music stalwart T.I., New York’s smutty-screwball-comedy rap diva Cardi B (who, with her own reality show roots in Love & Hip-Hop, seems made for the gig), and Chicago indie-rap prodigy Chance the Rapper (who strives to balance out the others with his sunny attitude and Christian convictions), the Netflix show doesn’t neuter rap’s inherent aesthetics, or mostly doesn’t. It’s better able to reflect rougher realities about the racialized communities hip-hop comes from than the conventionally sentimental backstories of reality TV. There are a lot of murdered, imprisoned, addicted, and otherwise vanished relatives in Rhythm + Flow’s would-be stars’ lives. For many of them, the stakes of the competition—with its prize of a quarter-million dollars—are as much about slipping out of American nightmares as they are about pursuing American dreams.

Even then, any guarantees may be distressingly flimsy, as we’re reminded in the opening episode when T.I. drops in at Los Angeles’ 1500 Sound Academy so that the then–soon-to-be-killed Nipsey Hussle can show off students at his music school as potential contestants. “I felt it was imperative,” T.I. says in voice-over, “to call upon somebody who made it his unwavering mission to give back to his community no matter what: my partner, the legendary Nipsey Hussle. Little did we know it would be one of the last times that we’d see each other.” (In the same episode, Cardi asks T.I. where he learned all the “fancy words,” and he answers: “I’ve been to prison, Cardi. I spent a lot of time reading the dictionary.”)

There’s also a sequence unlike anything I’ve seen on mainstream nonfiction TV, when Snoop taunts the 33-year-old Inglewood high school teacher D Smoke—whose rhymes often touch on local street violence—by asking twice, “Where you from, homie?” Both times, Smoke replies, “I’m from Inglewood,” refusing to take the bait and wink at a gang allegiance. They hold each other in a long stare, grinning like two cats with canaries in their maws. “You know I had to ask you,” the West Coast rap godfather finally says, raising his shades. It was a test. “You get my thumbs-up.”

That the show is still a load of fun is the exact miracle that hip-hop, like most forms of black American pop before it, was always tooled to accomplish. Here’s a call and response for you: When network TV says “family friendly,” you say, “Whose family?” Because Rhythm + Flow is definitely very friendly to rapper Ali Tomineek’s single father in Arizona, who looks to hip-hop as a model for how he kept his infant son and himself going when they were living in his car: “You take nothin’ and you make somethin’.” Or to Atlanta’s verbally and visually striking Londynn B, with her curly two-tone mohawk, her 6-year-old daughter (whom she had at 17), and her lesbian wife. Among many others.

Solely as a suite of character studies and social documentaries in miniature, then, Rhythm + Flow repays its viewing time. There are arguably many more busts than bangers among the total bars doled out by the wannabes whom the show recruits via extensive audition sessions in its first four outings—at clubs in L.A., Atlanta, Chicago, and NYC—as well as in the full episode “challenges” (cyphers, rap battles, a mini music video festival, and a competition involving building a track atop a classic sample) I’ve screened so far. But there’s no denying the array of personalities and talents. They range from the gruffly woke D Smoke, the competition’s best pure songwriter, to Denver’s besuited and bespectacled Old Man Saxon (who cites old-timey influences like swing musician Cab Calloway and blues comedian Rudy Ray Moore), to Rhode Island’s baby-faced but hard-nosed Puerto Rican rhymer Flawless Real Talk, to Chicago’s raggedy, slam poetry–honed Big Mouf’ Bo, who gets grief from the judges for her short temper.

Refreshingly, though, the show doesn’t stoke, or linger over, group conflict, at least compared with the players’ wrestling over their own stresses. The participants are supportive even to a fault, with many hesitating to go for their opponents’ jugulars in their battle raps, for instance. Mostly, the low ratio of triumphs to near-misses in the finished work only proves how dexterous a combination shot of skills and choices it takes to land a real rap song, especially on deadline and under pressure, even with the best in coaching (from freestyle legend King Los as well as the judges and guests) and up-and-coming producers (among whom Kal Banx, previously linked to J. Cole, leaves the strongest impression). That difficulty is highlighted by the fact that the show, in keeping with hip-hop “realness” but unlike almost every TV singing tournament, doesn’t let contestants fall back on covers of familiar classics.

Which raises the greater mystery of how Rhythm + Flow will acquit itself of the question that’s been haunting the musical reality genre for years: Can these shows still discover stars, the way American Idol managed at least fitfully in its early years by introducing Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Chris Daughtry? Those days seem long ago, and while the rotating hot seats on The Voice have reeled in high ratings for more than 16 seasons now, it’s mostly been to the benefit of the careers of judges such as Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, rather than many of the competitors. The exception seems to be for country singers such as RaeLynn, who move on to the close-knit community of Nashville, Tennessee—much the way, I think, that the hothouse environment of London can still work for TV-talent winners in Britain. (It helps that not every U.K. star is expected to have model looks as well, Susan Boyle being the signal but far from lone example.) As Levine himself has complained, most crown-claiming contestants on Idol and The Voice end up foundering under the record label deals that are part of the prize. This leaves them to producers and managers who probably resent being saddled with artists they didn’t choose, or who want to force them into generic pop-star molds.

Rhythm + Flow seems to have drawn a lesson there, and likely from Chance’s own experience of the advantages of self-management in the streaming age: It promises the winner cash (and a token live Spotify video spot), not a contract. It’s a harder guess whether hip-hop today is still enough of an intimate world in which to re-create the Nashville or London effect. The camaraderie says yes, while the judges’ home-city rivalries raise doubts. Early on, Cardi B says: “I don’t just want to pick a winner. I wanna pick somebody who’s gonna be, like, one of us.” That carries a lot more meaning from a rapper than a Voice judge, but is there in 2019 really a coherent “us” among Cardi, T.I., Chance, and such guest judges as Jadakiss, Quavo, and Royce Da 5’9”?

Even if so, is it entirely desirable? One notable pattern in the selections and judging is a bias toward positivity and toward what a skeptic might call “rappity-rap” fundamentals, resisting hints of the looser, less technical, younger sounds and styles of artists such as Young Thug, Juice Wrld, or even Post Malone. When a fairly adept Detroit rapper in that vein named Yung Water shows up at the Chicago auditions replete with pink hair and a doll’s head on a chain, the judges find his vibe too “dark,” with Chance going so far (and not for the only time on the series) as to call his performance “demonic.” And while Cardi’s presence on the show is a perpetual antic delight—even if her judging often boils down to repeating another judge’s observation in a more hilarious way—what she does police for is commercial ultraviability, pushing artists for something that will pop on radio airwaves, or at least as Instagram-caption “quotables,” above any other metric.

On a deeper, more Marshall McLuhan–esque level, the vexation of music reality shows is that they are reality shows first, music showcases an enticing but distant second. After bingeing the first eight parts of Rhythm + Flow, I find myself more readily recalling Cardi B repeatedly saying that the longest-lasting white contestant looks like “Bill Gates’ son” than anything about that rapper’s rhythm or his flow. He almost might as well have been shoving hot tubes into glory holes to shape decanters over on Netflix’s improbably entertaining glass blowing competition, Blown Away.

By this formal logic, we already have the ultimate music reality show in the form of The Masked Singer, the recent hit adaptation of a preposterous South Korean program in which panelists play a What’s My Line?–gone-Murakami-or-Koons guessing game, with the likes of Donny Osmond and Joey Fatone crooning while being disguised as masquerade rabbits and unicorns. Meanwhile, in the past year, the songwriting competition show Songland—which I hoped might bring to that craft the rigor and pleasure that Project Runway at its best did to fashion designing—ended up being dull because the writing process itself felt so secondary to on-screen relationships and “moments.”

Netflix’s staggered release schedule for Rhythm + Flow is effectively building up my suspense over whether the show ultimately will go for the most exciting rap artists or the most telegenic ones. Consistent with many Netflix original series’ pacing problems, I did find R+F’s four audition episodes a bit too much of a prelude, and the remaining 30 contestants too many to get a handle on to start the main events.

But there is another kind of synergy that could elevate the exercise beyond itself—in all of music, hip-hop is the genre that could most be called “reality music,” as it plays with the borderlines of life and pretense in parallel ways to the TV format, as behind-the-scenes dramatics and adopted personae become elements and contexts of songs, and vice versa. Already this week, one rejected R+F aspirant, an Atlanta auditioner dubbed the Lyrical Gift, has released a diss track in response to guest judge Quavo’s cutting quip, “You’ve got a gift but maybe it may not be, like … rap.” If R+F—with the already obvious advantage of its conscientious attention to street-level scenes and not-too-softened truth-telling—can become the kind of platform that overflows its own boundaries this way, it conceivably could start weaving itself into the ongoing, ever-branching, overlapping storylines of hip-hop itself. It’s far-fetched, but as Cardi B keeps declaring, “Let the games begin.”