In the first episode of Rhythm + Flow, Netflix’s new hip-hop competition show, a contestant named D Smoke takes the stage. Judges Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and T.I., and guest judge Snoop Dogg, gaze at him impassively as the DJ drops a beat that sounds like somebody typed in “Free Trap Beat” on YouTube. The 33-year-old Inglewood native then delivers a snoozy set of introspective bars that reflect a decade’s worth of good kid, m.A.A.d city spins. But the judges’ jaws drop when he delivers the second half of his verse in Spanish. “I thought it was incredibly different for you to incorporate Spanish in your art,” says T.I., in a sharp checkered suit, hands folded like a cartoon villain. “As an executive, that shows me another stream of revenue.”
Aside from T.I. talking about a rap verse like he’s in a company meeting with shareholders, I felt like I was missing something. D Smoke’s run-of-the-mill lyrics and lethargic stage presence were completely unremarkable (in English or in Spanish), something I could come across on a dusty hip-hop forum any day. Quickly, it became clear to me that Rhythm + Flow is not at all about finding a good rapper. Or at least not about finding a good rapper that would actually fit into the 2019 hip-hop landscape.
And that’s fine. Every music competition show, from The Voice to American Idol to The Masked Singer, is designed to be entertaining television first. If someone half-decent emerges that can be plopped into the pop zeitgeist to make a little extra money, all the better. But Rhythm + Flow’s format has no relationship to its ostensible goal—a prize of $250,000 and a spot on Spotify’s Rap Caviar Live tour. The show’s first four episodes are live-performance auditions and the next four, in order, are titled “Cyphers,” “Rap Battles, “Music Videos,” and “Samples.” The contestants aren’t judged on anything besides technical rap ability until episode seven. A hip-hop competition in 2019 shouldn’t strictly be about who can deliver a string of words the fastest and with the most aggression—unless the show’s goal is to find the next Logic, which it might be.
The flaws in the format become glaring on the show’s sixth episode, as the 16 remaining contenders pair up and compete in a series of loser-goes-home rap battles. Early in the episode, the two front-runners, D Smoke and 31-year-old Denver rapper Old Man Saxon, face off. “You look like you would be all over the internet,” said Cardi B, during Old Man Saxon’s audition, because he dresses like Jidenna in the “Classic Man” video. The battle between the two rappers feels ripped from an early ’00s episode of 106 & Park; Old Man Saxon flows like Slick Rick with E-40 ad-libs. Yet these are supposed to be the powerhouses of the show.
The episode reaches a boiling point when Ariyon, the show’s most promising young rapper, gets eliminated. The 18-year-old South Side Chicago rapper, wielding a flow influenced by his city’s drill music, injected a much-needed youthful energy into the series. A standout in earlier episodes, Ariyon stumbles through the battle rap, probably because battle rap is for 35-year-olds that grew up rapping over DJ scratches at sweaty open mics. The judges are forced to send Ariyon home in favor of Ali Tomineek, a rapper whose initial gimmick was spitting while completing a Rubix Cube. (Watch Ali Tomineek’s latest music video if you’re feeling brave.)
On the show’s best episode, “Music Videos,” the format is radically changed. The eight remaining competitors pick a beat, write a song, record, and then shoot a music video. To my surprise, the artists abruptly abandon ’00s nostalgia when left to their own creative devices. Troyman’s Travis Scott-inspired “Again” kinda bangs, and so does Londynn B’s stylish late-night-in-the-nail salon “I Can’t Change.” The rappers have more talent than the show lets on; they’re just not put in situations that benefit them until the very end.
Ultimately, battles and cyphers are easier to dramatize and shoot over a 10-episode run that is supposed to filter out dozens of contestants. Watching a rapper sift through YouTube for a “type beat” or record a verse line-by-line wouldn’t exactly be the most compelling television. That’s why I don’t expect Rhythm + Flow to change. As long as they entertain, letting the rappers shine is an afterthought.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork