Issa Rae’s ‘Rap Sh!t’ Flows Through Miami’s Hip-Hop Scene With Realistic Rhythm
Seeking fame in our modern era can seem so easy and crushingly difficult at the same time. If you somehow score the right video that goes viral, overnight success can follow. You might also slave away at trying to get that Tik Tok or Instagram account popular without getting anywhere. HBO Max’s “Rap Sh!t” has an addictive tone in the way it captures the rhythms of daily life in the social media age. It’s a wonderful return to form for writer and executive producer Issa Rae, who recently closed the curtain on another HBO production, “Insecure.” If that was an immersive, funny portrait of the Black American middle class in Los Angeles, this one is a rousing exploration of the struggling artist.
Shawna (Aida Osman) is a natural talent in Miami who has gained a small following with her videos online, rapping with real passion. She’s also growing frustrated at watching how gimmicky artists and acquaintances gain major numbers posting generic, raunchy numbers or doing the prerequisite flashing of cash stacks on camera. To get by Shawna works as a concierge at The Plymouth, a luxurious Miami hotel. The job includes having to deal with rude customers, yet she still tries to find space to make new videos. Out of the blue, Shawna is contacted by Mia (KaMillion), who is seeking childcare. She’s juggling multiple gigs from doing makeup for elite white clients, running an OnlyFans page, and building an online presence with her videos commenting and complaining about daily life. During a fateful outing, the two discover they instantly click rapping together. For Shawna this might be the chance to finally break through. The two start working with Mia’s baby daddy, an aspiring producer, Lamont (RJ Cyler) through a barrage of obstacles to try and put some real music together.
Rae’s immersive approach to building a project is on full display here. This isn’t just a show about rappers and artists. It’s guided by them as well. The inspiration for the narrative comes from the history of hip-hop duo Yung Miami and JT, known as City Girls, who serve as executive producers here (the title is taken from one of their songs). In the writing staff we also find Kid Fury, the highly successful comedian and vlogger. Together they make sure that not a single moment of “Rap Sh!t” rings false. There is such a dynamic flow and authenticity to the conversations that this could easily be a docuseries. Visually, the show cracks the code for how to properly make use of cell phone and computer POV shots. It’s become common now for movies and shows to utilize the look of our modern gadgets, with emojis and text messages appearing on screen. Like last year’s brilliant “Zola,” the technique doesn’t feel like a crutch. What it captures so well is how we now shape our identities online. Mia has turned her daily life into a kind of show, shaping a persona out of her routines. Her OnlyFans account is like some alternate identity where she turns down the decimal of her voice and seduces viewers in her lingerie. KaMillion in real life is a Florida rapper herself, and so she knows perfectly the ins and outs of the terrain her character operates in the series. When the term “sell yourself” is used to build a following, it really means create an idea of yourself to put out there.
Shawna too deals with the pressures of wanting to achieve recognition but in a society where you have to master the art of attaining likes and followers. She raps in a wrestler’s mask, with lyrics that are more feminist and socially conscious than some of the counterparts she follows. When she sees a white artist reappear in videos purposefully attempting to be more “Black,” she nearly erupts in a tirade on her social media accounts, demanding to know why genuine art gets brushed aside for nonsense. Her frustrations are compounded by having a long-distance relationship with Cliff (Devon Terrell), a law student who seems content doing Zoom masturbation sessions with Shawna. At first, he also seems to cast a value judgment on her for working with a woman who has an OnlyFans account (“it’s practically porn”). At work she seems to have more platonic fun with flirty colleague Maurice (Daniel Augustin), who tries to encourage her to play the social media game better. Aida Osman brings a sharp presence to her role while Augustin’s performance is so controlled and even welcoming.
In the spirit of previous films and shows about chasing the dream, like “Hustle & Flow,” what also works so well about “Rap Sh!t” is how it captures the sheer difficulty of pursuing an artistic endeavor with few resources. Truly staying focused can become hard, as Shawna learns when Mia, already weighed down by dealing with motherhood and her other gigs, wants to procrastinate. Lamont may brag about the artists he knows and posts videos of himself setting cash on fire, but he has his own crosses to bear, not least having to learn to pay closer attention to those pesky fatherly responsibilities such as attending school meetings. The series also captures the energy and addictive fun of the journey as well, bringing to life Miami’s hip-hop scene with real energy and verve. The soundtrack features tracks by Trick Daddy, Trina & The Slip-N-Slide Express among others and expertly frames moments of delirious partying and fun. Nightclubs and strip joints in this show are the hangouts where dreamers like Chastity (Jonica Booth) are always trying to find the next hustle, or impress the right people. Strippers at a club are trying just to get by, risking getting robbed while servicing a client.
“Insecure” was such a refreshing portrait of college-educated, up-and-coming Black Americans in Los Angeles because it wasn’t so much about plotting as about daily life, or the millennial insecurities of a brutal economy. “Rap Sh!t” thrives on the same spirit. It can be endearing and hilarious to watch Lamont first deal with his car getting towed and then watching him late at night, working on the perfect beat. Shawna knows she has much to share with Mia as her artistic partner, but the struggle is getting someone to listen. Screenwriters and painters from many backgrounds can all relate to such journeys. The stories of artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B are so well-known, but few realize all the uncertainty, grueling hours and rejections behind the romanticized image of success. “Rap Sh!t” is about regular people who may have extraordinary talent, but to make it flourish have to deal with life itself.
“Rap Sh!t” season one begins streaming July 21 with new episodes premiering Thursdays on HBO Max.