Insecure’s finale was a bittersweet end to a series that reinvented friendship sitcoms. But at least fans could take comfort in knowing that many more shows would rise from Issa Rae’s empire. Her newest venture, HBO Max’s Rap Sh!t, takes elements introduced in Insecure and expands on them, jetting audiences from the young-professional sphere of Los Angeles to the amateur-rap game in Miami. And in doing so, Rae & Co. have created a hilarious and experimental comedy, one that’s propelled by stellar rising talent and authentic, complex stories of Black life.
Rap Sh!t follows two childhood friends born and raised in Magic City. Seasoned rapper Shawna (comedian and former Keep It co-host Aida Osman) has already been a plaything of the music industry. She dropped out of college to work with a manipulative producer (Fairfax’s Jaboukie Young-White). Now, she works a day job and posts her tracks online to little fanfare while feeling stuck in life. It’s somewhat similar to Rae’s Issa Dee in Insecure season one. (I promise that’s the last comparison that will come up.) Then there’s Mia (rapper and Love And Hip Hop: Miami alum KaMillion), who works several jobs and co-parents her daughter with a rising record producer (RJ Cyler). They both have hustles to help pay the bills: Mia runs an OnlyFans, and Shawna sells stolen credit card numbers.
When the old friends link up after years of estrangement, they immediately click, thanks to Osman and KaMillion’s effortless onscreen chemistry. After a night of partying, they have an impromptu front-seat freestyle to Khia’s “K-Wang” during an Instagram Live. They immediately decide to ride the good energy and form a rap group, as their freestyle becomes Miami-famous and draws the eye of aspiring manager Chastity, a club promoter and the self-proclaimed Duke of Miami (Jonica Booth).
In the six episodes provided to critics, Rae and showrunner Syreeta Singleton tell the story of the rap game confidently. City Girls rappers JT and Yung Miami serve as co-executive producers; and in 2019, Rae started an audio production company and record label called Raedio, which supervises the snappy music in the series. The writers, too, excel at depicting the self-promotion, maneuvering, and necessary luck required to get a grassroots hit. They also adeptly show the day-to-day hustle that making art requires: the jobs, the annoying roommates, and all the other do-what-you-have-to-do things that keep you in the game.
The cinematography also nicely highlights the importance of social media in this industry, where an artist’s clout is determined by the number of eyes on them. Much of the show is filmed as interactions on video platforms: Instagram Lives, Facetimes, the aforementioned OnlyFans, and often the characters’ self-recordings. In addition to being an innovative approach often reserved for cinema (think Zoom or live-stream horror movies), this storytelling device also adds a layer of intention: Who is this character is performing for? What changes in how Shawna or Mia present themselves in a FaceTime call with a loved one versus a Live? How does the distance inherent in a video call add strain to Shawna’s conversations with her long-distance, proto-Obama boyfriend Cliff (Devon Terrell)?
From the opening montage of tourists’ Instagram feeds, Rap Sh!t plays with perception. Miami is presented through its party-capital cultural image before the focus shifts to Shawna, one of the many service workers who helps maintain that very image. She later takes a bus home to the part of the city locals would call the real Miami-Dade county. That same conflict between a money-generating outward face and inner life is present in each character: How much of how we present ourselves to the world actually lines up with who we want to be and who we actually are? The moments where the characters’ unfiltered selves are shown are either magical or completely disastrous.
Though Rap Sh!t offers a lot of stimulating conversation starters about the state of the music industry, the rise of social media, and Rae’s choices in building her legacy, it’s primarily a funny-ass show about women trying to change their lives. Shawna and Mia’s “Seduce And Scheme” track is born out of a fun and friendly bonding night. Each time the song plays afterward, it offers a little hit of dopamine, reminding the viewer why they’re rooting for the duo. In the end, Rap Sh!t is a heartwarming show with sex, intrigue, and the perfect amount of Black-specific humor. If you’re ready to laugh, shake your ass with the musical duo, and wince a bit at how much a character reminds you of your ex, do yourself a favor and tune in.