Netflix’s foray into the music competition format feels genuinely inspired, despite a few downsides.
If you’ve noticed that we’ve somehow had reality-TV competitions about glassblowing but never had a mainstream one about hip-hop, apparently Netflix has, too. And the streaming giant has something for you in the form of Rhythm + Flow, a three-week musical competition judged and hosted by global superstars Cardi B, T.I. and Chance the Rapper. It’s an interesting series for being a first-of-its-kind musical competition that for once doesn’t focus on vocalists, but also for its obvious appreciation of both the culture and business of hip-hop, and for its genuinely innovative distribution model: Each section of the series — first auditions, then battles and cyphers, then the creation of original videos and songs — will air as a binge-able block of episodes each week, from today until October 23rd.
With Rhythm + Flow, Netflix has a product that feels positioned at the tactical halfway point between the weekly network format and the binge-buffet streaming one; between timeless evergreen content and of-the-moment cultural prominence; between a genuinely constructive competition and a sensationalized mockery destined for YouTube compilations. Its well-chosen judging panel — the legendary status of T.I., the raw, unconventional creativity of Chance the Rapper, and the indescribable superstardom of Cardi B — help the show to flip-flop between hip-hop extremes, filling multiples niches and presumably pleasing a larger audience who’ve been crying out for such a thing for a long time.
Auditions move between vital hip-hop scenes in L.A. and the judges’ native Atlanta, Chicago, and New York, constantly bringing in industry titans as surprise cameos or guest judges, including the late Nipsey Hussle and Snoop Dogg. Live crowds help to give immediate feedback and create an appropriately pressurized environment. As the competition progresses, Rhythm + Flow concerns itself more with the total production of art beyond simply the performance of it, including an awareness of how to navigate the industry — that last point is aided by the current pop-cultural value of Cardi B, who could easily pass as some kind of experiment created solely to be a judge on a show like this one.
Occasionally, Rhythm + Flow succumbs to the baser impulses of the format, such as contestants’ backstories overshadowing their performance (or giving away its outcome), the judges being mean for the sake of it, and a clear preference for mainstream industry acts over more daring original talent. But these are relatively minor quibbles that don’t undermine a series which feels like a genuinely novel attempt at reinventing an age-old genre of reality television — like the show’s hopefuls, I sincerely hope the industry takes note of it.