Hip-Hop’s Answer to American Idol Is Irresistible

Cardi B anchors Netflix’s fascinating rap competition, Rhythm + Flow.

Cardi B on "Rhythm + Flow"
A new superstar herself, Cardi B is the show’s most reliable entertainment. (Eddy Chen / Netflix)

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.

Singing competitions tend to portray stars as needing a combo of vocal ability and, per the title of one Idol knockoff, the charismatic X factor. But the formula isn’t so straightforward for rap. Subject matter counts; so does songwriting; so does novelty; so does audience engagement. In place of the Mariah Carey melisma that many young vocalists try to use to prove their chops, a lot of the newbie emcees attempt the high-speed, rat-a-tat delivery of rappers such as Twista and Eminem. The judges often shoot these types down. “You definitely can rap, but I’m trying to see you on the outside,” Cardi B tells one. “Because these kids nowaday, they really like simple stuff.”

A new superstar herself, Cardi is the show’s most reliable entertainment. Her flamboyant outfits and voices—she’s lately loved affecting a Mafia-don mumble—liven up the first two episodes. But she’s also Rhythm + Flow’s voice of reason, verging on cynicism as she tells contestant after contestant to focus on marketability. This doesn’t mean sticking to her style of mass appeal: “You’re very different from me—I’m selling boobs, I’m selling ass and everything, but if I was to hear your song, I wouldn’t care,” she says to a more bookish type. “I like it.” But it does mean personality and hooks are more important than #bars, respectability be damned.“You can write for me if you want to,” she compliments one rapper, deliciously ignoring fuddy-duddy stigmas against ghostwriting.

The other judges also come off as constructed characters who embody specific reads on what’s good and bad hip-hop. T.I. is the statesman, swaddled in crisp suits and sweaters while cobbling SAT words into slogans about authenticity (e.g., “What the barbershop deems acceptable and appropriate is very important”). Chance is the low-key craftsman who seems embarrassed by his own participation in the show, and his episode in Chicago is suffused with his slam-poetry-adjacent, socially conscious approach. When a guy in mascara growls through a performance that represents the series’s one flirtation with the current emo/goth boom, Chance seems legitimately horrified. “There’s a lot of demonic shit in that rap, yo,” he says.

In the weeks to come, new stars will emerge as the contestant class is culled via rap battles, music-video shoots, and recording sessions. But the first batch simply shows a diverse array of unknowns trying to blow minds onstage. Hip-hop prizes a close and convincing tie between identity and performance, and the judges are frank—maybe too frank—about the industry’s biases. T.I. says he doesn’t want to promote someone who’s just “dope for a girl.” Cardi B counsels a gay rapper that he’ll have to work extra hard. While the series seems strangely uninterested in the internet—the music cues and editing often seem to set up a network commercial break that never comes—Twitter will inevitably judge the judging. Are there more comments about the women’s appearances? Who gets points for vulnerability, and who gets dinged for it?

Most fascinating is the range of musical approaches. Some contestants treat the stage like a block party, and others stalk around to tell serious tales of struggle. The art form’s enormous demands on performers—to create intricate lines and deliver them cleanly and confidently while also interacting with an audience—make even the most cringeworthy sets worthy of respect. Where it gets trickiest is with the rappers who fulfill some on-paper criteria for greatness yet still don’t connect. At the Atlanta auditions, the guest judges Big Boi and Quavo salute one guy for his flow and lyricism. T.I. turns to them and asks whether they can recite any lines from the verse they just heard. They strain to do so. “You got to find a way to be memorable,” T.I. says, and the thrill of this show, and of hip-hop in general, is in the complexity of meeting that challenge.