Could Netflix's Rhythm + Flow be the most brutal music competition series? If you ask its contestants, the answer is yes.
The series pits 30 aspiring hip-hop artists against each other to see who emerges victorious in various challenges judged by Chance the Rapper, TI, and Cardi B, as well as a slew of guest judges. This dynamic series is similar to bootcamp; there's no time to cry or feel defeated. During season 1, the top 30 picks from Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York were divvied up into cyphers, or rap super-groups. From there, half were dropped. The remaining contestants battled it out in challenges ranging from rap battles to performing in music videos to collaborating with famous R&B artists.
Rapper Ali Tomineek, from Phoenix Arizona, auditioned at club Nightingale in Los Angeles. The rapper bears a striking resemblance to Donald Glover, and has his own hipster edge. He took to the stage with his signature Rubik's Cube, completing the puzzle before blowing away the judges with his vocal skills. Chance the Rapper, T.I., and guest judge Snoop Dogg liked what they saw, but Cardi B was on the fence. After mulling it over, she gave her thumbs-up for Ali Tomineek to advance to the next round. The judges gave him one bit of advice, however, and that was to lose the gimmick. By the time he advanced to the cyphers, the Rubik's cube was gone. Soon after that, so was he... from the competition.
Gay artists in hip hop were largely unheard of 10 years ago. However, since Frank Ocean, Syd tha Kyd, Angel Haze, and Lil' Nas X have broken down barriers, the rap world is becoming much more inclusive. Enter: Cakes Da Killa. The Brooklyn M.C. wowed the judges during the New York auditions. His flamboyant style was in stark contrast to his powerful voice and well-written rhymes. Cardi B was reluctant to approve him for the show until she had confirmation that he could stand up to other rappers who might not agree with his sexual orientation. Ultimately, he made it to the next phase of competition, before his untimely elimination.
Also representing the ladies and the LGBTQ community is Londynn B. This fashion-forward diva was one of the few competitors on the show who seemed to build an instant rapport with the audience. She also is the only candidate who looked like she was already a chart-topping superstar. With her Cruella de Vil two-tone hairstyle and striking resemblance to Teyana Taylor, Londynn is enigmatic. Yet, when she hits the stage, everything else fades away and she's a force of nature. Londynn B. was cast on the show in Atlanta. She captivated T.I., and guest judges Big Boi and Quavo, who felt she'd go far in the rap game. On Rhythm + Flow, she made it all the way to the finals.
One of the most surprising rappers to join the competition was Old Man Saxon. This Denver, Colorado artist blew away the judges with his jazzy scats, dapper suits, and retro glasses. True, he could be a cross between Morris Day and Cab Calloway, yet he defined himself as a true original. All of the judges were feeling his distinctive flow - particularly Chance the Rapper. His rhymes were sharp and his cadence was on point. In the end, he was taken down by season 1 winner D Smoke during the battle round. However, Old Man Saxon proved that the rap game is evolving to include talent that diverts from a traditionally urban aesthetic.
Feisty Latina Beanz hails from Reading, PA. Unlike a lot of the other artists on the show, Beanz is a misanthrope - and proud of it. She was also quite vocal about her family's dynamic. She says she's a perfect combination of her thug father and her super-nice mother. Beanz has an aggressive presence when she raps. It rivals that of DMX or Lil'Kim. Beanz isn't selling skin. She's not promoting her looks. Instead, she's a compelling, hard young woman whom the judges believed in so much, they put her in a rap battle against Flawless Real Talk. While she gave it her best shot, Beanz forgot one of her verses and was sent home.
Sam B Yourself was recruited for the show in Chicago. Chance the Rapper saw something remarkable in his perfect execution and alternative edge. His style and onstage persona hearkens back to the Beastie Boys and Third Base, with a tiny bit of contemporary artists like Logic and Eminem thrown in for good measure. The judges felt that Sam was lacking in personality, and that he might be harboring a chip on his shoulder as a white rapper in a predominantly black and Latin contest. They recommended that he cultivate a style that could make him more relatable. Sam B Yourself took the judges' critiques to heart and came back strong - narrowly missing the chance to perform in the finals.
The tough thing about Rhythm + Flow is that the competition is so brutal, it's hard to get attached to any particular performer. After the cyphers, half the cast was cut. In the episodes after that, the cast was whittled down more and more. While the drama is engaging and the cinematography is compelling, this is a show for and about the cutthroat world of rap. Watch it through those eyes, and it won't disappoint.