‘Rap Sh!t’ Review: Issa Rae Seizes on a Timely Pop Culture Moment in New HBO Max Series

·5-min read

“Rap Sh!t” may not be the follow-up some expect from Issa Rae, but it makes perfect sense. In “Insecure,” Rae made her affinity for rap well-known with her character Issa’s popular mirror performances (and Daniel, one of her early love interests, was a music producer). So “Rap Sh!t,” which Rae created, is not a radical departure in the least, and the explosion of female rappers like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Doja Cat, Saweetie and others makes the timing ripe. In fact, the story itself bears a noticeable similarity to the rise of female rap duo City Girls, whose members Caresha “Yung Miami” Brownlee and Jatavia Shakara “JT” Johnson coincidentally serve as executive producers.

Set in Miami, rappers Trina and City Girls’ hometown, “Rap Sh!t” follows one-time schoolmates Shawna and Mia who reconnect and begin forming their own rap duo. Since high school, the two women have been on different paths. Mia is a fledgling makeup artist and former stripper who has a young daughter with an up-and-coming music producer. To make ends meet, she also maintains an adult internet site. Despite being college-educated, Shawna (who pursues her rap career largely using social media) is not much better off than Mia financially and works behind the desk of a boutique hotel. After Mia reaches out to Shawna during a childcare crisis, the two reignite a friendship.

Most people know Shawna as a talented lyricist, but her desire is to do conscious rap, which is a departure from the sex-laden bass music or boastful and materialistic rhymes for which Miami is known largely thanks to early pioneer Luke and the 2 Live Crew as well as Trick Daddy, Trina and Rick Ross. Her determination to lead with her rhymes and not her looks, even hiding them with a colorful mask in social media posts, attracts ridicule from fellow classmates who are now strippers and sex workers. In this world to which Mia is more accustomed, women use their sexuality for survival as well as to secure material comforts. During an early conversation in which Shawna speaks passionately on misogyny in rap music (and society at large), Mia points out that Shawna’s devotion to “conscious” rap may be more driven by a conformity to misogyny and not the departure from it she believes it is. That leads to a song with the stand-out chorus “I’m gone spend his cream, seduce and scheme” that, on a deeper dive, attempts to negotiate these two realities or at least tries to find a middle ground. It becomes the song that launches the duo.

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Making a dent in the ultra-saturated rap game is not an easy feat. “Rap Sh!t” shows the cast of characters who stand up to help the duo, most notably Chastity aka Duke, achieve it. Impressively played by “Bad Girls Club” reality show alum Jonica Booth, the masculine-presenting jill-of-all-trades who alternates between pimp and club promoter but now wants to upgrade to Mia and Shawna’s manager is reminiscent of Terence Howard’s DJay in “Hustle and Flow” who is determined to matter. Because Duke often holds court at Shawna’s hotel where she frequently stretches the truth about the depth of her connections to the city’s notables to win the favor of other notables, Shawna is skeptical about her ability to elevate beyond con artist or clout chaser.

Curiously, Shawna’s misgivings about Chastity quietly mirror those close to her who question whether she can make it as a rapper. Key among them is her college friend Jill (Amandla Jahava) and Cliff (Devon Terrell), her college boyfriend and law school student who may not be as supportive as Shawna believes. Waiting in the wings, however, is Shawna’s Haitian co-worker Maurice (Daniel Augustin), who doesn’t follow the rules as stringently as Cliff. As Lamont, a struggling music producer, RJ Cyler turns in another standout performance, particularly as father to Mia’s daughter and a supporter of her fledgling music career.

Ultimately, it’s Aida Osman who does double duty as Shawna and one of the show’s writers, and especially Jacksonville rapper KaMillion who plays Mia (and has worked with established music artists that include Sean “Diddy/Love” Combs, H.E.R. and Future and most recently appeared as herself on VH1’s reality show “Love & Hip-Hop Miami”) who truly shine. Perhaps because she has truly lived this life, KaMillion completely owns her role as Mia. She and Osman’s chemistry is also completely believable.

Although Osman’s Shawna is a bit more polished than Mia, they are indeed two peas in the same pod. In their own ways, they each capture the angst of wanting to be more than society’s low expectations of them and other urban Black girls. To this end, the City Girls’ involvement enhances the show’s credibility. Showrunner Syreeta Singleton also creates a feminine tone for the show that greatly distinguishes it from other hip-hop-centered efforts like the Hulu drama “Wu-Tang: An American Saga,” built around the rap supergroup.

These positives don’t mean “Rap Sh!t” is without its missteps. Grasping what it wants to achieve is hard to ascertain in the first episode. Additionally, the decision to employ a vérité technique duplicating the nonstop iPhone filming and oversharing nature of today’s youth takes time to gel. Eventually, however, “Rap Sh!t” finds a groove that is entertaining while also offering accessible social commentary around Black female sexuality, empowerment, classism and more that will attract its enthusiasts.

“Rap Sh!t” debuts Thursday, July 21 with two episodes premiering as a special event at 6 p.m. PT/9 p.m. ET on HBO Max, with new episodes weekly after that.

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