Like a battle rapper tearing into a weakened opponent, Netflix is gunning for the broadcast networks. So far this fall, the streaming giant has disrupted their premiere season with flashy new scripted series like Ryan Murphy’s The Politician and the elevated police procedural Unbelievable. But its most direct challenge to network prime-time to date is Rhythm + Flow, an uncensored alternative to popular family-friendly singing competitions like The Voice and The Masked Singer.
In a 10-episode season that will roll out over three consecutive Wednesdays starting Oct. 9, the show sends judges Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and T.I. to America’s hip-hop capitals—Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta—on the hunt for the next big rapper. In an improvement on American Idol, the four audition episodes are filmed at real clubs with live audiences, providing a sense of not only the hopefuls’ raw talent, but also their charisma in front of a crowd. In place of Simon Cowell-style nastiness, the preliminary rounds hold your attention with fly-on-the-wall footage of animated conversations between the would-be contestants and stellar guest stars: Killer Mike, Snoop Dogg, Anderson .Paak, Fat Joe, the late Nipsey Hussle.
Rhythm + Flow really distinguishes itself once the field is whittled to 30, with a series of challenges that test a range of rap-superstar skills, from collaboration and one-on-one competition to incorporating samples and making music videos. Viewers quickly get a good sense of who each MC is—not just through the interview segments, but because they put so much of themselves into their raps and songs. Women are surprisingly well represented. Hip-hop stereotypes are casually shattered. We meet a glamorous queer mom, a socially conscious teacher giving back to the neighborhood where he grew up, a nerdcore wordsmith who cites Cab Calloway as an influence. “You look like you build computers,” Cardi B tells one guy, “but you did good.”
She’s full of these blunt but good-natured reads. In fact, as anyone who’s followed her rise from VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop to chart-topping hitmaker could have predicted, Cardi is the show’s most dynamic presence—a rap-game Lucille Ball with impeccable timing and a bubbly, girlish drawl. She has an intuitive understanding of the role persona plays in pop stardom and little patience for contestants who don’t have stage presence. While Chance and, to a lesser extent, T.I. also offer solid advice, Cardi brings the charm and the punchlines, lending a party vibe to every shot she’s in.
Varied episode formats sometimes yields clunkily paced hours; my eyes glazed over during the cypher round, in which all 30 contestants perform and get critiqued. But for the most part the show works because—on top of recruiting a more distinguished panel of judges than any of its broadcast competitors—it captures what makes hip-hop unique. It honors black culture and regional history, incorporating traditions like the rap battle. Judges push contestants to put their whole selves into their lyrics. The magic of songwriting suffuses every episode. TV may be saturated with music competitions, but Rhythm + Flow is one of a kind.