Streaming networks, for all their creative upsides, have trouble staying timely. Releasing worthy shows every week makes it hard for many to stay in the spotlight for too long, and anything remotely centered on the news cycle tends to expire almost immediately. Talk shows like Netflix’s “Chelsea” and Hulu’s “I Love You, America” struggled to strike the balance between evergreen and timely content. And thanks to the difficulty of keeping spoilers at bay with full-season drops, competitive reality shows have been less about shocking results than the pleasant journeys in between. Netflix is hoping to break that streak with “Rhythm & Flow.” It’d be tempting to call it a hip-hop “American Idol,” but in truth, “Rhythm & Flow” is more ambitious (and its contestants far more actively involved in their own music production) than that.
Over 10 episodes, judges Chance the Rapper, Cardi B and Tip (the artist also known as T.I.) scour the country for promising rap artists who can perform and produce. In one of Netflix’s most calculated and riskiest moves, “Rhythm & Flow” is being billed as a “three-week event” in which the streamer will take the unusual step of staggering the episodes. The first week includes four episodes of auditions in four cities, including Los Angeles for the premiere and one for each of the judges’ home cities of Chicago (Chance), Atlanta (T.I.) and New York (Cardi). The second batch winnows the top 30 down with rap cyphers and battle rounds; the third will cull the top contenders by making them create music videos and original songs. This consolidation of stages and staggered rollout marks a genuinely new way of airing a reality show that could very well change the game for how streaming networks approach their programming. (Though, of course, Netflix’s deliberately opaque ratings system will likely keep the specifics of the show’s success and/or failure under wraps until further notice.)
“Rhythm & Flow” is smart to find its own method for portraying singing contests’ typical rounds. As shown both during the competition and in flashbacks to their lives outside it, the “Rhythm & Flow” hopefuls are driven, clever and determined. Auditions are held in local clubs with a crowd, adding extra layers of pressure and immediate feedback on top of the actual judging. The cyphers, by contrast, are performed in front of no one but the judges, therefore testing the rappers’ abilities to project as much confidence in a vacuum as they did when feeding off an audience’s energy. By the time the show’s narrowed its contestants down to the music video and sampling stages, they get more of an opportunity to showcase their own sounds, personal histories and creativity. These latter challenges are also geared toward helping the competitors become more savvy about the demands of the music industry — a crucial skill set that one judge in particular emphasizes throughout the competition.
Cardi B has become a ubiquitous pop culture staple so quickly that it’s almost hard to imagine a world without her. But as she reminds us over and over again, both explicitly and through her own undeniable wit, Cardi carved out a place for herself by understanding and exploiting systems that would otherwise have shut her out. She funneled her wild charisma into bite-size pieces on social media, leveraged her following into a TV spot on “Love & Hip Hop,” proved her worth in the recording booth and developed a bona fide empire. She’s as sharp as she is funny, hyperbolic and hyper-aware of it.
In other words: Cardi B is a perfect reality show judge. This holds especially true when she’s sizing up a group of artists who saw what she did and want nothing more than to emulate her incredible rise. It’s impossible to list just how many fantastic one-liners Cardi has throughout “Rhythm & Flow.” (Seriously: I tried and lost count within a single episode.) What’s perhaps more interesting, though, is that she never loses sight of how the rappers could actually make a name for themselves in the industry. Chance and T.I. have solid advice, and yet neither demonstrates the eye for branding or what makes a star that Cardi does. Watching her calibrate that invaluable sense in real time beyond her offscreen social media presence is one of the series’ most compelling strengths. Even if “Rhythm + Flow” were half as entertaining as it is, the Cardi Show at least makes for some incredible television.
“Rhythm + Flow” premieres Oct. 9 on Netflix.
(10 episodes; 8 watched for review.)