Rhythm + Flow review – Cardi B proves there’s life in the TV talent show yet | Television & radio


Television talent shows have been in a funk for years now, particularly when it comes to their once unrivalled ability to hoist music artists up into successful careers, however short-lived those careers might have been. A star has not been born from The X Factor for some time, and its newest incarnations aren’t even bothering to try and find one. Instead they are settling for a celebrity special and an all-star edition, both of which are the ratings-desperate equivalent of “turn it off and turn it on again”. Arguably, The Voice UK never managed to give anyone a shot beyond the show itself. The charts no longer look anything like the old reality TV giants that could once crack them. Now, in the age of streaming and all the democratisation that brings, artists have more chance of turning themselves into stars than ever. Lil Nas X had the longest run at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 of all time with Old Town Road; his Simon Cowell equivalent was TikTok.

Rhythm + Flow (Netflix) strides into this unpromising wasteland like the T rex finally making its entrance in Jurassic Park. This is the talent show updated, beefed up – and it will either save the format from oblivion or annihilate all competitors completely. Three famous judges are looking for the next hip-hop superstar, via auditions, battle rounds and tasks, and the eventual winner will receive $250,000 (£205,000) and a slot at a Spotify gig. So far, so talent show.

But everything about this is far from ordinary. The main judges are Cardi B, T.I. and Chance the Rapper, who source contestants in their home towns of New York, Atlanta and Chicago. Each offers their own flavour of input and wisdom. T.I. turns out to be far drier and wittier than he lets on at first. Chance is earnest and thoughtful and gives criticism so constructive it should be turned into a Lego set. And then there’s Cardi B, who has the air of a woman permanently delighted by the sheer simple wonder of everything she sees and hears. “She looks like she reads books … for fun?” she beams, looking one promising contender up and down.

That is not to say she is soft on the acts. She is the most brutal of the judges, blithely announcing she’s unimpressed if she isn’t into it, and in these early stages, she is the hardest to please. Her advice may be blunt, but it also appears to be the most practical. She tells a gay rapper he will have to work harder than everyone else to be the first mainstream out artist in that field (I assume it was filmed before Lil Nas X came out). She tells a rapper with a political bent that the intensity of his rage might not be as commercial as he would like it to be. “I wasn’t really feeling that ‘murder’ thing, you know, that scares white people,” she shrugs. There may be an enormous prize waiting for one of the contestants, but from the outset, it is clear who the real winner will be – and you get the sense she knows it too.

The first episode is a blockbuster, setting the scene with all three judges together, and, since they are in Los Angeles, Snoop Dogg drops by to size up the Californian contenders. Throughout, though, even as the main judges split off into their own cities, the guest judges and mentors are truly impressive. It surely raises the stakes for any wannabe rap artist to know they could be getting the nod of approval from Big Boi, Anderson .Paak, Jadakiss, John Legend, Miguel or Killer Mike, who all drop by to lend a hand. There is a strong air of respectability.

It makes older talent shows look outdated beyond repair, as if they are still on the hunt for Britain’s Next Vaudeville Superstar. Whereas they often fell back on a cruel streak to entertain, pointing and laughing at incompetence, there is a notable lack of that on Rhythm + Flow. Some rappers are better and some rappers are worse, but they are rarely made to look silly. Even the ones whose egos dent their chances – it’s not wise to tell Jadakiss he hasn’t been around for years, if he hasn’t yet made a vital decision about your future – emerge relatively unscathed. The contestants’ back stories are heartfelt, treated with respect and ring true. It could be sickly, but it never is. All walks of life are here.

The only potential issue for Netflix is how to air a show like this. It could have gone weekly, busting its own binge model, or dropped it all at once, which would risk losing the tension of the competition. Its compromise is weekly blocks of a clutch of episodes, moving us from stage to stage. For the most part, that works just fine. Viewers may not be able to vote for their favourites to stay, but this reinvention of the talent show wheel is so convincing I am happy to take such decisions as simply signs of the future.



Source link