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'Rhythm + Flow' Remixes The Rules For Reality TV

T.I., Cardi B and Chance the Rapper sit in judgment on Netflix's <em>Rhythm + Flow</em>.
Adam Rose
T.I., Cardi B and Chance the Rapper sit in judgment on Netflix's Rhythm + Flow.

Though released in weekly installments, the full season ofRhythm + Flowis now available for streaming on Netflix. This review discusses the season in total, but does not reveal the ultimate winner.

Setting the tone, guest judge Snoop Dogg exclaimed, "This isn't The Voice, [plural expletive]!"

Rhythm + Flow is Netflix's new music-competition reality show. The name is a thinly-veiled reference to the 2005 film Hustle & Flow(different enough, we hope, to avoid a lawsuit). It's a solid association, as over the course of its season, each contestant battled for their own version of the glory that Terrence Howard's character DJay achieved as a rapper in that film.

Fourteen-year-old film reference aside, Rhythm + Flow feels fresh — which is surprising, as it traveled such a well-worn path. (A path first blazed by the original season of American Idol premiered in 2002.)

Rhythm + Flowis unfiltered and expletive-laden. This rawness lends itself well to a more authentic sound that feels ready for streaming music services and Soundcloud, as opposed to more sanitized competitions like Idolor The Voice.

As the season progresses, the stakes remain sky high, if familiar: We swiftly move from a national field of candidates to 30 finalists flown out to LA, to 16, to 8, to the final 6, then cut to 4, to finally reveal the ultimate winner. The contestants perform in a group, battle-rap, record an original single, and produce a music video, often with chart-topping artists and top producers in the industry.

In a world where cord-cutters rule and a distracted generation of TV viewers typically keep Instagram open, the pacing here is critical: The release schedule mashes up the binge model Netflix pioneered ... on a weekly release cycle. The first week offered four episodes at the premiere, followed by three more a week later; the final three were released on October 23.

This feels like the future of reality TV, if not TV in general.

The different perspectives provided by the show's judges proved equally noteworthy and valuable: Cardi B (candid, hilarious), Chance the Rapper (thoughtful, lyrical) and T.I. (the patriarch of the judging panel). Their chemistry is solid overall, albeit with moments of awkwardness typical of a freshman reality TV and competition show. The forced tensions among judging panel members that were always a distraction in the American Idol vein have been dispensed with; you don't miss them.

For all its signature strengths, the show was not without its shortcomings.

When things were close between contestants, the judges invariably returned to the music genre's defaults, favoring predominantly male rappers advancing traditional styles.

A number of promising and original artists would advance only to be cut for far more conventional challengers. The front-runners made quick work of these cuspy candidates in the following round, and we missed seeing the more interesting folks that were excluded: Kay Makavel, Kaylee Crossfire, Rae Khalil, Beanz and Felisha George a.k.a. Queen were extinguished too soon. This group included some who had never rap-battled before.

Overall, Cardi B is a charming judge with catchy, memorable one-liners that dominate the highlight reel. Her very occasional digs at talented female contestants were sad, given Cardi's leadership in the industry. This was particularly apparent with Savannah Hannah who had a red-carpet ready look, which she'd assembled on her own, and a performance at or above the level of other artists who moved forward. It felt like the tired trope of pitting female performers against each other that's played out, again and again, over the past few decades.

The strict adherence to the mini-challenges favored aggressive, seasoned battle-rappers (as there was a strict knock-out round). This pushed out any potential winners who were more introspective, and had never done a rap battle before. This felt unfair when the greener challengers were paired against people with 10 years of rap-battle experience, including one contestant who had been on another televised competition. These wins felt cheap, and unfulfilling, like eating an entire bag of candy, then wondering why your stomach hurts.

The breakout star in the cast of hopefuls was undeniably Londynn B. Her free-flowing and poetic raps fused with an undeniable star quality. Beyond her many talents, she is open about her sexuality and embraces it as part of her identity, on and off camera (exhibit A, Twitter). This authentic representation of her life will likely grow her already burgeoning fan base.

Her video for "I Can't Change" was the only one that had the live audience immediately singing along. It looked like it could be right at home on MTV, YouTube, or the Billboard charts. In the finale, her three-in-one original song performance read more like an arena tour than a segment on a reality competition show.

While the show tries to break the mold, its treatment of the LGBTQ contestants is far from groundbreaking and a disappointment.

In one of the more memorable confessionals, the single gay male contestant, Cakes Da Killa, talks about wanting to break "the weird misconception that a lesbian can be a rapper, but a gay guy can't". He is summarily cut from the competition in the same episode. In this context, the edit of his confessional feels like tokenization served cheap. Two lesbian contestants advance to the latest stage and one is cut. Londynn B's sexuality is broached early and then only revisited in passing at the end, which comes off like intentional and surgical exclusion. The remaining field is overwhelming straight and male, with five men. In a sadly-predictable disappointment, the winner is a (very talented) straight male, reinforcing the current state of play in the industry.

Overall, Rhythm + Flow offers a strong new take on reality television music competitions for even the most jaded viewers. If you like rap and R&B (especially Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and T.I.), and/or music competitions, and/or reality television, it makes for a great Saturday afternoon on the couch.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stuart Symington