The rap competition show vied to find “the next rap superstar,” but instead gets lost in a borderline exploitative focus on its contestants’ traumas.
“This is something I’ve always wanted,” 20-year-old rapper J-Pex reflects on an early episode of Netflix’ Rhythm + Flow.
The Philadelphia rapper is one of the countless aspirants aiming to win the contest that’s offering $250K to “the next rap superstar,” according to the show’s official site. J-Pex says that he’s been rapping since he was 12-years-old, but his quest to join show judges Cardi B, Chance the Rapper, and T.I. as rap stars is hamstrung by an insurmountable deficiency: he admits that he’s never actually performed live.
J-Pex gets the boot in his initial audition, despite Fat Joe finding novelty in his portly physique.
It’s on those tenuous grounds that Rhythm + Flow rests. The 10-episode show, which just wrapped its first season, is just the latest televised rap competition. And it’s just as bogged down by hackneyed tropes and an underwhelming talent pool as its predecessors. Rhythm + Flow producers clearly vied to make the “nothing to something” narrative everything, shoving sob stories down the viewers’ throat in a heavy-handed, borderline exploitative fashion.
“You don’t necessarily believe that in a workspace like this that you’re gonna find somebody that you really believe in, believe in,” Chance tells eventual Rhythm + Flow winner D Smoke. Chance’s surprising candor elucidates his awareness that D Smoke, a 33-year-old Inglewood rapper who radiates an undeniable Kendrick Lamar influence, was the exception to the show’s general rule of shameless gimmickry and heart-tugging backstory ahead of talent. While the show’s final four contestants — D Smoke, Flawless Real Talk, Londynn B, and Troyman — demonstrated solid song making ability, the pool of artists that they toppled seemed to only be chosen for their stories.
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Rapper Inglewood IV lives with his wife’s family in a dangerous part of his namesake city. He’s looking to the contest as a ticket out of poverty for his wife, daughter, and upcoming child, believing “this is my only option.” Long Island, New York’s Onetake Carter tells the other contestants, “I can’t work” and “I don’t got no plan B.” Troyman says that, “I don’t think people know the full Troyman,” and the show immediately cuts to him talking about the loss of his mother as if that trauma reflects who he is as an artist. High school senior Ariyon is the youngest rapper on the show, but fervently believes “I’m supposed to be dead, I’m supposed to be in jail, I’m supposed to be working a regular job right now,” conflating a nine to five with two of man’s worst fates.
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New Jersey rapper Felisha George told fellow contestants about how her grandmother lives in Bronx public housing, “gave her life savings” for her to follow her rap dreams, and therefore “has to see her make it.” Most of the artists on the show believe that the competition is their family’s sole ticket out of generational poverty. The hungry rappers sound similar to the football players depicted on Last Chance U, a Netflix favorite which chronicles Division II junior college football players vying to get accepted into Division I schools. But while several Last Chance U players perform well on the field and have actually gotten a whiff of the NFL, so many artists on Rhythm + Flow drop the ball.
Onetake Carter fumbles his Plan A by stumbling during a freestyle. In later episodes, artists complain about having to write and memorize a song as if it’s a lofty, unfamiliar task instead of a fundamental requirement of a rapper. George belies the fiery determination she exhibited in confessionals by choking in a freestyle, then later bungling her bars in a rap battle. She implored the judges that “this is her life,” but Chance The Rapper later exposes that she didn’t write any rhymes for the show (despite having time before every round to craft rhymes). It’s cringingly obvious that aside from the show’s finalists and relatively established artists like the Brooklyn-based Cakes Da Killa and Chicago’s Sasha Go Hard, the show’s contestants are way too underdeveloped to actually seize the stardom that the show promises.
The dearth of talent is what makes the show’s harping on trauma all the more unsettling. Denver rapper Jakob Campbell repeatedly evokes his mother’s domestic abuse on the show and in his bars, actually rhyming “I seen my mom get beat, now I beat on beats” during a freestyle. It’s likely that this show will be the most exposure these artists ever receive, and their legacies will be steeped in their trauma. In future recollections of the show. Inglewood IV will be the “lives with his wife’s family” guy.” Jakob will be the “his mother was abused” guy. It’s troubling to realize that Netflix will be making revenue from these traumatic stories long after the show’s buzz fades for the artists.
In a later episode, Stone Mountain, Georgia rapper Caleb Colossus reflects that “I don’t have the traditional rap story,” and “you would think I would end up in corporate America.”
But the show’s hourlong format doesn’t offer him the space to expand on what could have been a much-needed antithesis to the struggle stories. D Smoke is the mold-breaker. He’s a teacher and instrumentalist whose mother sang background for icons like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner before quitting to raise her children. His father was incarcerated, but he came back to live with them once he was released, and they’re framed as one big happy family.
His story is a relatively nontraditional one that elicits warmth instead of sorrow.
Smoke admits that he wanted to win the $250K to repay his mother’s sacrifice, but his desire feels different than his peer’s pleas that they have “no other option.” He appears to have plenty of options, but rap is just one he’s talented enough to explore. D Smoke’s backstory doesn’t have back-against-the-wall trauma; he exhibits no sorrows, just skills. It wasn’t past pain, but conceptually-driven songs that helped him stand out from his competition and win over judges. His wire-to-wire superiority over the competition raises questions on how much more compelling the show would have been if the bulk of the scouted talent pool was as talented as him.
Netflix was aiming for viewers to rally behind the artists on representational grounds of struggle instead of identity, but that’s a reductive view of how fans engage with artists. While Cardi B’s ascendance was fueled by fans who followed her rags-to-riches rise from stripper to superstar, the difference between her and most Rhythm + Flow contestants is that her music is good. Cardi’s story alone isn’t what jumpstarted her rap career —enjoyable music did. The show’s producers placed a premium on traumatic stories ahead of talent, and it’s a fatal flaw. The entrant’s cloying bids to empathy make the show a continuous train ride with subway buskers who you wish would go to the next car. Their stories highlight how treacherous capitalism and the cult of celebrity are when they have people embarrassing themselves in front of the world for a shot at $250,000.
A more organic way for the show to ingratiate their contestants with the audience would have been to conduct a part of the vetting process on social media. With fans having early access to the artists, they could have presented a more well-rounded picture of who they are beyond glimpses of their hardship crammed into hourlong episodes. But it’s likely that such an effort would have received backlash from people wondering why more talented artists weren’t selected for the show.
As long as America’s celebrity obsession exists, there will be underqualified people dying for 15 minutes of fame. But outlets like Netflix don’t have to give them ten hours. No one should feel pressured to support an artist because of their story. Perhaps Rhythm + Flow is just a game show meant for casual viewing, but it was also an opportunity to highlight polished artists who could actually parlay the large platform into stardom, instead of assembling a pool of marginal aspirants eager to have their desperation sell a dream that their bars can’t. Some of these artists had no shot at stardom and Netflix knew that. But the streaming platform still saw fit to use their stories as part of a worn-to-shreds storytelling approach that depicts worthiness for rap fame as a mere oppression Olympics. That won’t be a fair exchange in the long run.
Did Netflix think that their audience wasn’t sophisticated enough to enjoy a show where trauma wasn’t the main draw? Is a show fixated on how artists developed their craft not as interesting as repeatedly hearing, desperate people proclaim “I have nothing else?” Did Netflix producers not realize this is the era of Drake and Chance The Rapper, which means that a backstory of poverty isn’t a necessity to enjoy an artist? Hip-hop is more than that. Blackness is more dynamic than the depictions presented on the show. Until producers realize that, any future iterations of the show will raise questions way more pressing than wondering what D Smoke’s first single will be.
Andre Gee is a New York-based freelance writer with work at Uproxx Music, Impose Magazine, and Cypher League. Feel free to follow his obvious Twitter musings that seemed brilliant at the moment @andrejgee.