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Gotta Go With The Flo
- Friday, Nov. 1, 2019
When I get home from a grueling day at the office I love to a) Make me a cupa Chamomile tea and watch reruns of “The Brady Bunch”; b) Tap a keg with my bros, order 3 large pies extra cheese and catch some MMA on Fox; c) Smoke some weed with my lady, eat donut waffles and binge-watch “The Walking Dead,” I mean Season 6 of “Friends,” no, Season 1 of “Game of Thrones”...
Hmm. When I get home from an amazing day at the office, I like to crack a bottle of Chardonnay and watch a music competition! Why? I love music, any kind of music (that was an O’Jays song, right?). You can either watch a whole show or stop anywhere and no matter what, your troubling dreams won’t get even worse!
Way back, when it seemed shiny and new, I loved “American Idol”—there were some great moments, and talent (never cared much for that abrasive Simon guy). I mean, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, Phillip Phillips, Adam Lambert…hell yea! Then it started to feel a little factory-made to me, with judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan in the warm seats and Ryan Seacrest feigning excitement.
It’s still a big hit for ABC (Disney), so whatever.
Anyway, I found me a new love in “The Voice.” There was/is something about the format, the dynamic of the “teams,” the dramatic staging, the turning red high chairs, the “POW!” sound when a judge hit the big red button, the nutty-sometimes-nasty interplay between judges. But then Adam Levine left to “spend more time with the family” (right), and Gwen replaced him so now it was she + boyfriend Blake and Kelly and John Legend, and now Gwen’s being replaced by Nick Jonas? Plus, who on “The Voice” has ever gone on to monster success? Pencils down, please. Oh, and I recently discovered a disturbing thing: a French version of the show called “The Voice Kids!” Same concept, same production, same turning chairs & pounding button…plus annoying child singers!
So I was definitely losing my ‘Voice.” But then along came “Songland!” A songwriting competition created by Dave Stewart, the brilliant songwriter/producer of the Eurythmics, with three judges/mentors: Ryan Tedder (of One Republic), Ester Dean, and Shane McAnally, and an interesting premise—the winning song + writer of each competition will have their song recorded by a guest artist and featured on that artist’s next album!
The series turns out to be an engaging examination of the craft of writing a pop song, from the importance of a song’s dramatic arc, memorability of the chorus, value of a pre chorus, the “fit” for the singer it’s being written for… We also see that in pop songwriting there can be a lot writers in that room. Which in a sense is the downer with “Songland” —it’s not about the songwriter alone in the park with her guitar, or in his bedroom with a keyboard, making art. It’s more like taking your piece of wood into the shop and having 8 carpenters help you make a table. Still, it’s got more than just another voice—it’s got the thing that voice needs most: something to sing.
And then, almost out of the blue with an October 9th debut, Netflix drops "Rhythm + Flow" into the category, like a bunker buster bomb into bedrock (sorry, I just needed to write that)—a 10-episode reality/documentary music competition whose mission is to “search for (and find) the next breakout hip-hop star.” (John Legend is one of the producers.)
Here’s my 5-star rating right now * * * * * And hip-hop is not generally on my go-to playlist.
"Rhythm + Flow" does, in fact, borrow from well established conventions of the competition genre. A panel of judges, live audience, celebrity guest appearances, emotional back stories. But those foundational pieces are merely the frame of this house, the production bullet points. What has actually been built over the course of these episodes is, to me, an unprecedented, unscripted, uncensured look at an artist’s gritty beginnings, the extraordinary talent and drive crucial to gaining traction in a cruelly competitive arena, the art of both performance and persona, the art of the poetry itself and its place in the rhythm and flow.
The three judges are themselves wildly entertaining, compelling. Young Chance the Rapper (born Chancelor Jonathan Bennett), role model, family man, hometown hero; T.I. / Tip (born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.), the sage Atlanta native and “speaker of (this) house;” and Cardi B (born Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar), the hysterically street-smart superstar from The Bronx. Together, their interplay and critiques are simultaneously hilarious, brutal, honest and constructive. Guest judges including Snoop, Fat Joe and Big Boi bring flavor, wisdom and no-bullshit advice to the hopefuls.
There is no single, high-gloss set where everything happens. Initial rounds of the competitions take place on the home turf of the respective judges, and in real clubs: Cardi’s NYC, Tip’s Atlanta, Chance’s Chicago…and ultimately, on to LA.
So now, please allow me a white guy disclaimer: I started my company inside a hip-hop recording studio in Midtown Manhattan—a studio where Queen Latifaf, De La Soul, The Brand New Heavies and many other seminal artists had recorded their first records. Even with that proximity, I didn’t really know what went into the creation of a hip-hop song, from the lyric writing to the beat making and sampling. I knew nothing of the lives behind the stories that became the songs. And maybe I wouldn’t have compared that process favorably with some notion of what “real” songwriting was. "Rhythm + Flow," in all of its seemingly anarchic, harrowing, passionate, deafening ways, makes the case brilliantly, decisively for a true art form and for its creators. I need to watch it all over again.