Film / TVMusic

the hip-hop hopes of ‘rhythm + flow’

October 23, 2019

Rhythm + Flow is reminding me why so many people need to make hip-hop. The contestants of this hot new Netflix rap reality competition show are living a symbolic 10,000 feet below the stars of modern hip-hop. At the summit, where the era’s 1%er MCs reside, the wealth is massive: the whips, the ice, the mansions, the bank accounts of Jay, Nas, Rick Ross, Drake, Dre, Puff, Migos, et al. makes modern hip-hop look like a Black episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Instead, Rhythm + Flow takes us to the bottom, to meet people who are living on mom’s couch or squeezed up in a one-bedroom with a wife and three kids. These people are fighting for their spot because to them hip-hop is a means of escape. It’s their way out. 

Normally the idea of a late-twenty-something rapper still trying to make it sounds pathetic, but when you see the real stories of people who have nothing else but this dream — and no other hope of making a good life for themselves and their families — it all makes sense. This isn’t about chasing fame at an age when you should’ve moved on. This is about responding to a nation that gives Black and Brown people too few options to rise up from the bottom. 

Though “making it” in hip-hop is like finding Willie Wonka’s golden ticket, for some people it is a solid plan, even with the long odds. Especially so because many of the MCs in the competition can rhyme just as well as some of the rappers they see shining on TV. This may be an era where more money than ever before is being made throughout hip-hop, but there is no monopoly on talent. (I hate to sound like my parents lionizing their generation’s music over mine, but c’mon, overall, the MCs in my day — the 1980s and the ‘90s — were better than most in the current crop. But I digress.)  

Part of what makes Rhythm + Flow so much fun is the stars who play the hosts — whether it’s T.I.’s alpha vibe, Chance the Rapper’s effortless cool, or Cardi B’s natural charisma. They drop little gems from time to time; T.I. is sitting on the throne now but when he says he “had the proverbial door slammed in his face so many times his nose got broken,” it reminds you that no matter how good you are, there’s a lot of “No”’s on the way to the top, and you gotta keep grinding in spite of that. Listen to the criticism, but never stop believing that eventually you will win. 

At one of the auditions Chance tells a hopeful that he didn’t remember anything the guy rapped, and it reminded me that succeeding as an MC isn’t about spitting the most complex patterns and multi-syllabic words. No, it’s about seeding the audience with your thoughts. Great MCs say things so unforgettable that it’s like they’re using the mic to reach into your mind and place hot lines in there. Great MCs tattoo certain lyrics on your memory bank. “I never sleep, cuz sleep is the cousin of death.” “Real G’s move in silence like lasagna.” “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.” If you want to stand out, you gotta make your words clear, witty, and indelible. 

Among the contestants there’s the expected variety of folks. The producers of Rhythm + Flow found contestants on both coasts, and even some from Denver and Phoenix. There’s women and men, there’s Black, white and Latinx (though no Asian MCs), and of course there’s straight and gay people. And within that I see an interesting subtext.

Gay rapper (and AFROPUNK favorite), Cakes Da Killa makes it to the big showdown in LA but then gets quickly cut, while the lesbian, Londynn B, is an immediate stand-out who’s still shining in the competition. (She’s my pick to win it all, the girl’s got star power.) There’s a significant gap between them — the level of talent and experience — but their different paths on the show, in which Londynn is highlighted while Cakes is something of an afterthought, lets us see once again how overtly gay men in hip-hop are largely shunned, while lesbians are celebrated. That divide remains because the straight men who dominate the hip-hop audience tend to find lesbians intriguing, and gay men, not so much. 

That said, we are in the most gay-friendly moment in hip-hop history. Not only are there gay icons like Cardi and Nicki Minaj, but the culture is also home to openly gay men like Lil Nas X and Frank Ocean, and sorta-kinda-open gay men like Tyler the Creator and Jaden Smith. Part of the power of hip-hop is in its ability to subsume any culture, and make that culture part of its own. Hip-hop will only grow as we allow the brilliance and creativity of gay men to become more and more a welcome part of it. Their presence and influence is much more at home in R&B and pop music, but hip-hop will only get better by accepting more gay men and allowing them to be their true selves. 

Rhythm + Flow is taking me back to the heart of this music, when MCs were striving to perfect their craft and pretend they had money while they were scraping dollars together. These rappers believe they’ll be successful if they’re great on the mic and talk of becoming successful so they can change the lives of their families. It’s a pure approach to hip-hop — and to success — that makes me want to root for all of them. Then again, it’s also always funny watching Cardi kick people off the show!