In the first episode of Netflix’s Rhythm + Flow, the aspiring rapper Inglewood IV delivers a furious verse about police brutality to a packed nightclub and a panel of superstar judges. Tears well in his eyes. Chance the Rapper complains that his song is too “dark” and “abrasive.” Cardi B chides that it’ll be too scary for white people. T.I. smiles. “Boy, you gonna hate yourself for cryin’ on TV.”
T.I.’s advice comes to mind three episodes later, when the aspiring Milwaukee rapper Kaylee Crossfire delivers a furious verse about destroying her competition. Tears well in her eyes. Twista compliments her for saying her name during her performance, something too many rappers supposedly forget to do. Chance the Rapper takes issue with her enunciation. Royce da 5’9” tells her, “It’s okay to cry. Because that’s passion coming out.”
Which is it? Should the next great rap star cry in public, or not? Does the answer depend on whether they’re a man or a woman? Or does the answer depend on who’s doing the judging?
In questions like these lie the tensions that make Rhythm + Flow irresistible, even as the rap competition recycles American Idol’s clichés. Early episodes feature celeb judges separating amateur wannabes from could-bes in frankly judged auditions. (The main panelists, Cardi, T.I., and Chance, work together in the L.A.-set premiere, and they then canvass their respective hometowns of New York City, Atlanta, and Chicago with guest judges.) Gauzy segments spotlight the backstories of the competitors, who are chasing a $250,000 grand prize. Though the show forgoes Idol’s public-voting component, the release schedule is still engineered to amp suspense: In a rare move for Netflix, the 10 episodes will be parceled out in three chunks over three weeks. If the attempt at creating “event” viewing ends up paying off, it’ll be for the same dizzying confluence—of culture, craft, politics, and performance—that makes hip-hop America’s most thriving art form right now.